When artists associated with secular music decide to record a gospel album, it usually means one of two things: Either they are in deep trouble with the IRS, or they have seen the evil of their showbiz ways and want to repent. So when Memphis's audacious soul-sludge kings, the Oblivians, released 9 Songs With Mr. Quintron, a 28-minute platter filled with traditional spirituals and hymns, earlier this year, fans were left to scratch their Ritalin-addled heads in disbelief. Had the group that penned delightfully tasteless ditties such as "You Fucked Me Up, You Put Me Down" and "I'm Not a Sicko, I've Got a Plate in My Head" found religion? Could an appearance on The 700 Club be far behind?
Yes it could. Despite the subject matter that dominates the disc, Eric, Jack and Greg Oblivian won't be hawking Bibles door-to-door anytime soon. According to Eric, who, like his bandmates, sings and plays the guitar and drums, "We just thought it would be cool to make a record like that. We aren't churchgoers or anything. We just like the spirit of the music. They're songs about living and living it up and trying to get that rock-and-roll spirit--that wild abandon--in you. In that way, the new songs are pretty consistent with all our other stuff."
Indeed, no one will mistake Mr. Quintron for a Mahalia Jackson album; gospel overtones aside, the disc's nine cuts seethe with a savage, hepped-up fire that is pure Oblivians. The offering opens with a cagey, Bo Diddley-esque shaker called "Feel All Right" and the haunting "Live the Life" before taking an ugly, albeit ingenious, turn. Simply put, the brothers Oblivian systematically beat the shit out of soulful broadsides like "I Don't Want to Live Alone," "Ride That Train," "I May Be Gone" and the gratingly euphoric "What's the Matter Now," during which Greg howls, "I got the Holy Ghost in me!" Judging from the singer's frantic tone, however, it's hard to tell whether he's been touched by the hand of God or if he's touched in a more general way.
Adding to the CD's raunchy, revival-ish feel is the erratic organ-playing of the album's namesake, Mr. Quintron. A New Orleans-based performer, Quintron is known for his eccentric live shows; his current production finds him playing experimental music while his wife blows puppets to shreds. Given such antics, it's no surprise that the Oblivians were drawn to him.
"We called him because he was the wildest organ player we knew," Eric notes. "He was kind of wary of the project at first, because he didn't want to make fun of gospel music. But when he got up here to Memphis, he realized that we weren't making fun of it--that we were just really into it. So he got into it, too. The whole thing worked out great considering that we had never worked with the guy before we went into the studio."
Fortunately, the Oblivians thrive on spontaneity. For example, their critically acclaimed debut, Soul Food, includes ditties that were written mere days before the players committed them to tape. Eric remembers that "the songs were basically from our first session ever. Greg was touring with the band 68 Comeback at the time, and Jack was teaching me how to play drums and guitar. We wrote a bunch of songs together, and when Greg got back from his tour, we decided to go in the studio and record them. We were kind of proud of them, and we wanted to document what we had done. We had no idea that anybody was going to like them."
As it turned out, folks at several indie labels, including In the Red and Sympathy for the Record Industry, were enthusiastic enough to release a handful of the tunes as singles. Crypt Records' Tim Warren did them one better: He offered to release the entire opus. The various Oblivians were taken aback by the proposal. "We were like, 'Well, it isn't that good,'" Eric says, laughing. "But then we went back and listened to it and thought it worked pretty well as a complete record, even though it kind of falls apart toward the end."
Soul Food has more than its share of raw elements; a case in point is a variation on Dave Clark's "It's All Right," which disintegrates into a raging shriek-fest. But a brain-damaged rendering of Lightnin' Hopkins's "Viet Nam Blues" and a blistering interpretation of Trio's kraut-rock staple "Ja Ja Ja" are slices of garage-punk heaven, in part because they bear little resemblance to the originals. The reason for these differences, Eric believes, is his own musical ineptitude. "Greg and Jack were in a band called the Compulsive Gamblers for two years before the Oblivians," he explains. "They know how to play. But I don't play too well--so we have to strip everything down to keep it at my elementary-school level.
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"That's where we run into trouble," he continues. "The way we do covers is that I'll find a song on a CD or something, and instead of bringing it in and letting the rest of the band hear it, I just try to teach it to them. So by the time we record it, it doesn't sound anything like what I was trying to copy. I guess you could say it's just an approximation."
This approach also colors Popular Favorites, the Oblivians' second full-length. The opening number, a sneering version of Brownie McGhee's "Christina," finds Eric and his mates playing with the same sort of drunken abandon that marked their earlier work. But barn-burners like "Guitar Shop Asshole" and the nasty, tequila-drenched grooves that highlight "Hey Mama, Look at Sis" and "You Better Behave" display a certain gritty proficiency. Eric feels that Favorites represented an important step for the group: "We realized we could do more than write the most moronic songs we could think of. Soul Food was more of a straightahead kind of punk-rock record, while Popular Favorites has more of an R&B flavor to it." With less than total sincerity, he declares, "On our next record, we're just going to hire some big guitar guy with an Afro, and he's going to sing the songs instead of us."
In the meantime, the Oblivians will be taking their meat-grinder blues to the masses--and they are confident that their Mr. Quintron mate-rial will blend nicely with "And Then I Fucked Her," "She's a Hole" and other less reverent pieces. "It's a big world," Eric points out in a rare moment of philosophical introspection. "I think all these things can co-exist. There's nothing wrong with having it all in one big mess. Just saying one thing is boring."
The Oblivians, with Boss 302 and the Down-and-Outs. 9 p.m. Monday, November 10, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.