Garage punk has always been an underappreciated genre. Being less politically charged than their hardcore punk compatriots, garage punk bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion sought to capture the heart of early ‘70s bands like The Stooges and The Modern Lovers, creating a visceral blend of punk whilst retaining some humour and humanity. Although this movement basically lived and died with the ‘90s, its figureheads the Oblivians have decided to have another crack at the style in the modern age, with their new LP, Desperation.
Considering their lack of a bassist and garage rock roots, it might be easy to liken them to bands like The White Stripes – which would be a fair comparison had the Oblivians not been making albums before the Stripes had even formed. Furthermore, their style is so rooted in 60’s pop that it’s more fitting to call them a stripped-down Ramones than anything (especially since their stage names all end in Oblivian, a move clearly inspired by the Ramones).
One remarkable thing about the Oblivians is how they alternate between instruments, with each member being competent on drums, and guitar, as well as vocals. This switcheroo lineup provides a lot of variety in the music: on Desperation, the bluesy “Come a Little Closer” is followed by the gentler pop-punk of “Little War Child”, which in turn precedes the hardcore punk freakout, “Fire Detector”.
The band’s last proper release came in 1997 with their last album, Play 9 Songs with Mr. Quintron – a more gospel-influenced outing than their previous work. Although Desperation does nothing to continue on in that vein, longtime fans of the band will be overjoyed to have some new material from them – especially when it’s still this good.
Desperation starts off strong and just keeps going: opener and lead single “I’ll Be Gone” mixes great chord sequences with gritty, distorted vocals echoing the band’s wiser outlook with the lines “Let’s rock and roll / As we get old / We will before too long”. On the other end of the scale, “Pinball King” is delightful in such a snotty, brash and dumb way (“DING! DING! PINBALL KING!”), showing the band revelling in their youthful ways despite their age. It’s a much better return to form than bands like Mudhoney, who still try and fail to recapture the magic of their ‘90s breakthrough.
However, with rock and roll having gone in so many directions since then, something as simplistic as this may be refreshing at first, yet ultimately a little backward. But at just over 30 minutes long, Desperation isn’t some kind of grand statement; it’s short and neat, and shouldn’t really be anything more given the band’s aesthetic.