Memphis has long been the place where the rural cultures of the Deep South meet and mix. It was surely the case before Sam Phillips put the ignition in the mighty motor of Sun Records in 1952. But Sun does provide the most obvious and optimal example of Memphis’s place in American musical experience. While Phillips first recorded the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, he made his fortune discovering white performers whose influences were reflective of an emerging South where, prior to but anticipating the social convulsions of the Sixties, whites were being entertained by black performers and vice versa. Well before schools and lunch counters integrated, Southerners radio dial and record shop preferences were crossing racial lines.
What’s this got to do with Jack Oblivian? Lots, as it turns out. Oblivian (or Yarber as his ma and pa know him), is a modern day Memphis mixer, putting together stray stands from Fresno blues to Carolina beach music, from the Stooges to Springsteen and the Clash, he’s a working class musical magpie, and in top form on his new release Rat City.
With Greg (Oblivian) Cartwright and Eric (Oblivian) Freidl in the Oblivians, he became an icon of the (re)emerging garage-rock genre by blasting grease pit , r ‘n’ b infused rock ‘n’ roll at punk tempos. As a soloist (and with his nominal ‘band’ the Tennessee Tearjerkers) Oblivian has purveyed a slightly grown up version of the same thing. He’s become a better singer and musician, and it sounds like he’s running his beloved cheap Jap guitars through better amps in better studios (actually, the portability/affordability of good recording gear is probably the bigger change). But he’s still a thrift shop recycler. And his uncanny ear for sweaty hooks and grooves is sharper than ever.
Rat City mixes Oblivian originals and obscure, but choice covers. The title track is a feast of distorted guitar blasts; Oblivian, as one-man-band, dishing out a grinding mix of Junior Kimbrough and what almost sounds like Z.Z. Top before they chained Frank Beard to the click track.“Rat City” ain’t much of a song, but it sounds great; and it sets an edgy, anxious tone for what follows. “Mass Confusion” follows (literally), Oblivian (w/band) blasting out trash-funk like a beautifully dumbed-down Band of Gypsys. “Old Folks Boogie” (a blues chestnut from Al Simmons, written by Slim Green) sounds like more re-fried boogie at first, but Oblivian’s Beefheart/Burnside delivery and a weird assortment of Moog swoops and “Mondo Cane” noises gives it a groovy, disconcerting post-mod edge.
Like all thrift shop junkies, Oblivian takes special pleasure in turning unlikely source material into something that no hipster could refuse. His “Dark Eyes” is prom-rock, not too distant from something fellow Memphian Alex Chilton might have done. As I sung along with the infectious melody I realized that the verse was based on Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas 1964 hit “Bad to Me,” a Lennon-McCartney handout. Such moments abound with Mr. Oblivian.
The Carolina beach music classic “Kidnapper,” originally by Jewel and the Rubies, first copped the riff that laces through Bobby “Blue” Bland’s ‘Don’t Cry No More," and Oblivian sticks with that lift, but energizes the song significantly. John Paul Keith’s stinging guitar solo has all the attack of a young Mike Bloomfield. "Moses and Me” is a cover from Tommy James’s 1970 release Travelin’, and features the same echo-crazy vocal effects that James favored on hits like “Crimson and Clover.” Oblivian’s version has an edge that suggests a kinship with the Eagles of Death Metal.
Oblivian's “Crime of Love” finds him singing in Iggy’s whisper mode and shredding like a southern-fried James Williamson. “Girl with the Bruises” is an Oblivian penned number that would flatter Dee Dee Ramone lyrically – Oblivian spins a tale of an abused girl who excuses her abuser, but his Dee Dee-like solution is expressed thus: “her boyfriend’s a prick, yeah, gonna hit him with a stick.” Beat on the brat, Jack. ‘Girl” also contains another gleeful magpie moment, as Oblivian quotes directly from the Clash’s “Clampdown” with the frequent use of the “what are we gonna do now” line. Hey, everybody steals. And Oblivian makes his contraband shine.
Oblivian even makes his thrift shop-Springsteen track “Jealous Heart” (ain’t hungry, it’s jealous) soulful. Adam Woodard’s piano (he also plays Hammond on several cuts and is an asset to Rat City throughout) is pure Roy Bittan, and Oblivian’s lyric is Beale Street goes boardwalk. Check out the way he drops one random, but cool Spector beat break before the first chorus.
Rat City is a prime distillation of Jack Oblivian’s sensibility. He’s a thief - plain, simple and transparent. But like Memphis greats before him he pulls together threads from all over the place, stamps them with his unique musical personality, and flat entertains your ass. More like him, I say.