In the arena of lo-fi Memphis garage rock, the power trio Oblivians are legendary gladiators. But — save the occasional one-off reunion fly-out or festival performance — the band has been defunct since 1998. And in those intervening 15 years, the group's former members have gone on to do great things while the Oblivians legacy inspired a robust garage-rock revival — think of them, both regionally and realistically, as the Big Star of the genre, but with less drama.
Singer-guitarist Greg Cartwright (aka Greg Oblivian) has — between his myriad other lauded rock bands, including Compulsive Gamblers and Reigning Sound — churned out a Teflon compendium of '60s-harkening top-shelf garage rock and power pop with Robert Pollard-rivaling prolificacy. And so has drummer Jack Yarber (aka Jack Oblivian), who has appeared alongside Cartwright in many of those ensembles, in addition to stints with Tav Falco's Panther Burns and The Tennessee Tearjerkers. Meanwhile, guitarist Eric Friedl (aka Eric Oblivian) has built a punk empire as founder and owner of venerable Memphis label and record store Goner Records.
A few years back Oblivians embarked on a European reunion tour — their first extended outing since disbanding — with reunited Detroit counterparts The Gories, legends of similar stature in their own hometown. The tour inspired the trio to write new material.
"The tour was great because we got a chance to really hone our dynamic together on the old material," Cartwright tells the Scene. But the band soon found that the nostalgia of playing old songs diminishes more quickly than the excitement of playing new ones. "After a while it begins to feel like being an oldies act, and I'm not really interested in that at all. ... [It's] fun for the first couple weeks, and then you're like, 'I want something new to play for this to be exciting for me.' And also, it just feels so good playing with those guys."
With their chemistry intact and their musical muscle flexing stronger than ever, Cartwright & Co. followed their instincts, deciding to churn out a killer record. Oblivians retreated to write songs individually, and then met in Memphis to make a shortlist. The result is Desperation — a distorted, all-killer, no-filler hook fest that is anything but desperate sounding, and one that shows band members' individual growth as players and writers, but doesn't show their age.
Desperation isn't nearly as sonically abrasive as the band's signature lo-fi '90s LPs, which (by design) buried Cartwright & Co.'s hooky riffs and inherently infectious pop song craft in an ear-splitting, often indiscernible wash of clanging crash cymbals and heavy distortion — a formula that left the band sounding like pre-Rubber Soul Beatles meets grating white noise. As excellent and unassailable as genre must-haves like Soul Food and Popular Favorites are, Oblivians' songwriting has dramatically expanded in scope and substance since they called it quits. Even more importantly, Friedl's chops aren't what they once were. (Back then they were nonexistent.)
"When we started the Oblivians, Eric was just learning," Cartwright explains. "That's what really made the difference, because Jack and I had been in bands before. ... When we brought Eric into the band, that was, like, the great equalizer, because he was very limited in his knowledge of how to play. ... Now I can throw things at him that are a lot more complicated."
For that reason especially, the classic Oblivians sound wasn't something the reunited band could honestly return to. "One thing that I was conscious of when we started putting songs together for the record was [that] I didn't want to try to dumb songs down to sound like something I would've written in 1994, because that would've been disingenuous.
"On some level, that element is gonna be there," Cartwright continues. "It's just inherent in the way that we play together. But if you try to cater to it by writing things that people expect, then they're not going to like it, you know?"
As such, Desperation delivers enough grit to satisfy fans of the romping cacophony featured in Oblivians' early work, while bringing it into a full-bodied focus that's palatable for fans of the members' later work. The song lengths, however, remain the same. Desperation's 14 tracks clock in at just over 31 minutes.
Oblivians cut Desperation at Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound in Nashville, a city the band often wrote off during its heyday.
"Back in the day, there was not a huge rock 'n' roll scene [in Nashville]," Cartwright explains. "Especially as Memphians, we thought of it as a total industry town. It's really grown a lot in the last 10 years, 15 years — it is not the same place. There's a really driving rock 'n' roll scene there."