A band like Obits lives and dies on its bad attitude. The Brooklyn four-piece make properly old-school garage rock, with an absolute minimum of flourishes. Sure, they throw in the occasional dash of surf-rock pitch-bending, the odd piece of Cramps-esque swampy weirdness for variety, but on the whole a couple of minutes with the band gives a good sense of their range and approach, and their sound will be immediately familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with rock history. That isn’t to say that the band are second-rate imitators. Aficionados of this style will find a lot to like in the interplay between the band’s guitarists and the straightforward solidity of their rhythm section. Just don’t expect any major surprises.
It’s a good thing then for Obits that in Rick Froberg they have a frontman with just about enough of a classic rock ‘n’ roll sneer to get the band over. Froberg certainly has the CV for the job – he’s a veteran of a whole series of garage rock bands, most recently Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu. Obits’ bare-bones classic sound gives Froberg more room to maneuver than the faster, more aggressive approach of his earlier bands, and he makes the most of it. He might be well into his sixth decade now, but Froberg has the energy of a teenager rocking out in his parents’ basement and a voice that somehow finds a place between the knowing leer of AC/DC’s Brian Johnson and Karen O’s expressive yelp.
Despite his impressive screech, in the grand tradition of garage bands everywhere Froberg isn’t the clearest singer. A more significant issue is that he’s not the most interesting lyricist. Like the band’s music, he favors a functional, straightforward approach to his songwriting, all short punchy lines and repetition for effect. It gets the message across, and occasionally he hits upon an interesting idea, but the delivery isn’t subtle.
On their new album, Obits stick pretty close to the formula they established on their previous two albums. There is perhaps a little more sophistication on Beds and Bugs than previously: a few slower, weirder songs, a few more tempo changes, a swampy instrumental in “Besetchet”, a hint of organ on “Machines”. The variety is a welcome development, though the band definitely haven’t abandoned their main interest in straight-out, stripped-back rock.
Still, despite the impressive energy and interplay between the band members, there’s a sense underlying Beds and Bugs, as there has been with Obits’ previous releases, that everything’s a little too tidy, too polite. The 60s and 70s garage rockers that are Obits’ most obvious inspiration – the Stooges, MC5 and the rest – had a ragged, rebellious, independent streak that felt like a reaction against prevailing musical styles. By paying so much attention to fidelity to that sound, Obits sound reactionary, not revolutionary. Among the endless waves of post-punk and garage revivalists drawing inspiration from those bands, the most successful have been those that have taken the style in new, weird directions. Obits are good at what they do, especially with the volume pumped up loud, but on the whole I think I’d rather just give Kick Out the Jams one more spin.