By Gabriel Mathews
OBITS, ROB CROW’S GLOOMY PLACES, OBLITERATIONS @ THE ECHO, 11/21/13
Full disclosure: I didn’t go to see Obits out of any serious appreciation for the band. I went to see Obits because they’re fronted by Rick Froberg, who has also fronted Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes, who have quickly become two of my favorite bands pretty much ever. But seeing as DLJ are never going to exist again (drummer Mark Trombino now runs a donut shop on York Blvd., that’s how much punk he’s got left in him) and I wasn’t into Hot Snakes in time for their 2011-12 reunion tour, this is pretty much my only chance to see Froberg in the flesh.
Obits are his latest band, and they’re a good one. But each successive Froberg-fronted act (after Pitchfork, which was basically prenatal Jehu) has gotten less and less interesting—DLJ were the pinnacle of intensity and virtuosity in his career, their two records of post-hardcore assault being, in my mind, the best the genre had to offer. Hot Snakes kept the intensity but streamlined and simplified into relatively straight-forward yet super excellent punk rock for three straight albums. Obits are pretty much nothing but a good rock band, playing rock music that wouldn’t really sound out of place in any of the past six decades. They’ve absorbed those decades’ rock tropes so thoroughly that they can just about emulate anything from Dick Dale to Sex Pistols to a pretty good Hot Snakes impression. That said, over the course of Obits three records (so far—Froberg’s pattern seems to be to make one more record with each band than the last band he was in), nothing indicates that Froberg is really doing anything more than sitting on his fat Sub Pop checks and cranking out tunes with minimal effort. Of those three records, I’ve listened to each at least once, and I’ve actually given number two, 2011’s Moody, Standard And Poor several spins. These are good songs, especially for a band comprised of dudes who should be the fathers of the guys making this music, but they’re not exactly life-changing.
Anyway, the show. I walked in most of the way through Obliterations‘ set, the second half of which was actually pretty obliterating. All I actually know about this band is that they’re based in LA, and that their guitarist is Stephen McBean, of Black Mountain/Pink Mountaintops fame. Obliterations are by far McBean’s heaviest act. The whole band has shoulder-length-or-longer hair, which spent most of the time covering their faces. The singer stalked around in a Void t-shirt, screaming at high volume. It was intense. Four dudes in the front moshed for about thirty seconds. But after like three songs of them not doing anything especially new, I pretty much lost interest.
As the next act was setting up, I wandered out to the smoker’s patio to find Froberg and the rest of Obits lighting up a bowl. At first I was surprised—he’d always seemed like more of a drinker to me—but then I realized that this is what aging rockers do, I guess. Plus, the dude has origins in Hawaii, so, I mean. Yeah.
Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place is yet another project from the simpler-named dude in Pinback. This guy has so much output between his like seven bands that I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, Gloomy Place is pretty much just another incredibly un-hip turn for Crow’s eliptical songwriting that, more often than not, blatantly refuses to do anything the straight-forward way. My main thoughts throughout Crow’s set, during which he was backed by four really lame-looking dudes, had to do with wondering if Crow has ever written a basic, Obits-esque rock song in his life, thinking about how completely appropriate it was that the bassist was playing a B.C. Rich Warlock, and questioning the guitarist’s Merrills-and-cutoffs from an aesthetic standpoint. I also thought about how funny it was that Crow wore barrettes to keep his hair out of his face. It seemed like a really odd pairing, for Obits to tour with these guys, but then I remembered that Crow contributed a few “alohas” to my favorite Jehu track, “Luau,” back in ’94, and it occurred to me that there’s probably a lot of history here.
History is certainly the name of the game for Obits. Not a single member of this band has full color in his hair. Second guitarist Sohrab Habibion (formerly of Edsel) looks like your neighbor’s paunchy father, glasses and male-pattern-baldness and all. Froberg retains a good deal of his cool through a sweet denim jacket and his signature mop of hair, but let’s face it— these guys are getting old. That said, it seems like Sub Pop’s current rockist caché lies in paying a ton of old dudes to keep doing what they’ve been doing for twenty years, so I guess Obits are a good fit.
For all the derision and ageism I’m laying on here, Obits put on a quite a solid show. Habibion, despite being a squat little dude, demonstrated quite a bit of energy, bouncing around and at one point coercing a fan into buying him a whiskey with a broken guitar pick, only to spit it straight into the air as the band pounced into another song. Everyone in the group has real chops (though maybe not, like, DLJ chops, no). Scott Gursky’s workmanlike drumming standing out a lot more in the live setting than on record. Froberg, also, put more energy in here than on the band’s albums, screaming occasionally at almost Snakesian levels. The setlist was nicely heavy on the album I know best, with Moody highlights “New August,” “I Want Results,” and “Everything Looks Better In The Sun” all making appearances. “Shift Operator” served as a nice showcase for Habibion’s clean baritone. We also got a lot of energy on tracks form this years Bed & Bugs, such as “Taste The Diff” and “Spun Out,” and a few of the better cuts from their 2009 debut I Blame You—”Widow Of My Dreams” being especially fun. (Also fun was seeing Crow sing along in the front row, and then jump up on stage to be Habibion’s guitar tech.)
In the end, I found myself questioning whether Obits’ relative lack of intensity/amazingness when compared to Froberg’s past acts is something that I can blame on the man himself. For a bit, I considered the possibility that the magic ingredient in both Jehu and Hot Snakes was guitarist John Reis, who is actually pretty much a god in my eyes. But then I remembered that nothing Reis has done without Froberg has been all that great—Rocket From The Crypt, for all their international success, are no more interesting than Obits, and Reis’ current act, The Night Walkers, are even less innovative. What it seems is that the two need each other to make the magic happen. So here’s a proposal, John, Rick— Bring Drive Like Jehu back and I’ll let you keep rocking till you’re sixty-five.