Popular Favorites, the band's latest release on Crypt, may be the best thing the Oblivians have ever done. Where their first two longplayers (Soul Food, Sympathy Sessions) were odds-and-sods collections of singles and EPs (the third, Rock 'N' Roll Holiday, was a semi-legit live set), Popular Favorites is a cohesive, unified set culled from two sessions recorded in New York and Memphis. It's a 34-minute slugfest that highlights the band's blues chops (hellfire covers of Brownie McGhee's "Christina" and Benjamin Perry's "Hey Mama, Look at Sis") and showcases their ability to pulverize a riff into fine powder ("Trouble" and "Do the Milkshake," a sorta rewrite of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips"). Like the Blues Explosion, the Oblivians splatter feedback and white noise on their punk-blues raveups -- witness the shrapnel-spraying guitar on "The Leather" -- but the ferocity of the best stuff on Popular Favorites never sounds affected. Where the Blues Explosion's bad-ass profile is both self-conscious and detached, there's a streak of vulnerability and desperation in the Oblivians' best stuff. You hear real pain in Cartwright's wailing laments "Part of Your Plan" and "You Fucked Me Up, You Put Me Down" and the cautionary raver "Bad Man." Even a throwaway laugher like "Guitar Shop Asshole" has a dark flip side: You know Friedl has actually been at a music-store counter, getting shitty looks from some frustrated Eddie Van Halen disciple as he politely requests "one guitar string and your cheapest picks."
Given that the Oblivians hail from Memphis, a place even the city's tourist bureau will tell you is the home of the blues, it's tempting to peg them as the real deal and the Blues Explosion as arty wannabes who flirt with the music like Big Apple skronkers James White flirted with funk back in the No Wave era of the late Seventies. You'd be wrong, though, because both groups approach the music from similarly bent postmodernist perspectives, using the blues as source material just as they consult the vast archives of rockabilly, soul, garage-rock, and punk. Their experiments may be tantamount to heresy to hardcore blues purists, but the fusions of the Oblivians and the Blues Explosion have shot some badly needed new blood into the dry vein of the blues. And it's always a good thing when you piss off the purists.
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