[2 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Rick Froberg has been one of the steadiest performers in indie rock for quite a while. After the edgy math-rock greatness that was Drive Like Jehu, he emerged again with another band, Hot Snakes, that was just as exciting and brashly amazing. But he didn’t rehash his old sound with Hot Snakes, instead tightening up the frenetic energy of his old band into three excellent albums of taut, hard-hitting, and volatile rock music.
And now he’s returned once again with Obits. It’s another solid turn for Froberg, full of snarling guitars and his caustic bleat. The drums are stubborn, driving, and fast, pulling the weight of the tumbling bass along with them. But the changes between Hot Snakes and Obits are not as evolutionary or drastic as they were after Drive Like Jehu. I Blame You plays a lot of the same games the Hot Snakes’ records played, with the tight punk energy and surf-rock riffing. But the subtle change here is one towards melody. Obits steps, only slightly, away from the blunt force of Hot Snakes’ sound, and the move mostly works, letting the guitars swirl around you instead of pound at your eardrums.
The songs are still very much about Froberg’s shouting and axe handling. From the outset, the stripped-down but attacking “Widow of My Dreams” makes clear his intentions to simply make rock music. Any originality in these songs—and there’s plenty of it—comes not from genre-bending or drastic changes in instrumentation, but purely in Froberg’s unique guitar sounds. The prickly riff of that opener pokes at the song over and over, punctuation it with bursts of anger, upping the tension with each razor-sharp note.
Froberg is, as always, cynical and stand-offish on I Blame You—as if the title didn’t give that away. But he takes that cynicism and doubt in some compelling directions. “Pine On” touches on a troubling isolation as he shouts, “The streets are all filled with people, I don’t feel close to them.” And “Lillies in the Street” features a chorus where Froberg pulls on his words instead of cutting them on his gritted teeth, and the sound is genuinely heartbroken. “Two-Headed Coin” has Froberg once again taking aim at the powers that be with his bitter, if unsubtle, wit. But songs like “Two-Headed Coin” and “Widow of My Dreams”, that talk of decks stacked in favor of the halves and living under the government’s—or Wall Street’s—thumb may not be original, but they are awfully timely. And Obits deliver the sad news of our times with a frenzied but clear-eyed insistence.
Obits’s exploration of melody can occasionally veer too far from their energetic strengths. Closer “Back and Forth” tries to build on a muted pop sound, but even when they get to the big chorus and the tumbling guitar riffs, the song never quite gets its pieces to come together and match up to the strength of other tracks. And on the straight power-pop of “Run”, Froberg gives up vocal duties to guitarist Sohrab Habibion and the song feels slack and plain without his signature screech.
But overall Obits is another solid outing for Froberg, and a promising start for his new band. While it is more melodic than his other bands, I Blame You still rests on the insistent repetition of its deadly riffs and the pure vitriol of its singer. So while it may not be the revelation that Hot Snakes was after Drive Like Jehu, Obits still has plenty of life to it, and enough twists in Rick Froberg’s sound to keep things interesting. It doesn’t exactly befit the indie rock slacker image to be this consistent, but Froberg doesn’t seem interested in fitting in like that anyway.