With its insistent wail of reverb-drenched garage rock, the debut album from Obits, I Blame You, may come as a surprise to listeners familiar with the background of guitarist Rick Froberg. He made his name fronting the legendary '90s post-hardcore outfit Drive Like Jehu, whose droning, angular style perfectly embodied the underground climate of that era. So much so, in fact, that Jehu's impact ensures Froberg still commands an audience today. That act's vitality and relevance was cemented in its insistence on long, winding instrumental passages, two-guitar atonality, dry Steve Albini-esque production values, and a maudlin sense of earnestness. Jehu was able to capture all of the above and avoid cliché.
But the new Obits album makes it abundantly clear that Froberg has no desire to return to that sound. The group's uptempo, surfy garage rock comes across as less ponderous than any of his other bands (which include Hot Snakes, where he worked with longtime musical foil, Jehu's John Reis). I Blame You begins with what initially sounds like typical garage rock. But as the album progresses, myriad subtleties begin to emerge. Froberg and Sohrab Habibion — a veteran of '90s indie rock as the frontman for D.C. outfit Edsel — slash through rhythms like two guys revving their engines and waiting to race. In the frenetic rush of the songs, both guitarists discreetly tuck their lead work into big, jangly chords.
Together, they evoke the off-kilter inventiveness of Wire, Television, Gang of Four, X, and Devo. And by the dramatic chorus of fast-paced barnburner "Fake Kinkade," it becomes undeniably clear that Obits are working with the broad palette listeners expect of a musician with Froberg's pedigree. The band particularly shines in its ability to create tension via unorthodox chord progressions that rise and fall in the choruses of the songs — something most retro garage acts wouldn't and couldn't achieve if their lives depended on it. Obits' ability to work discreetly with its influences hits even harder on the next song, "Two-Headed Coin," an abrupt change of atmosphere from surf to new wave anchored by an Elvis Costello–like stomp courtesy of bassist Greg Simpson and drummer Scott Gursky.
Froberg has cited inspiration from African rock, as well as the Ethiopian jazz-funk compiled on the Ethiopiques series, as contributing to his songwriting. Habibion, who favors the "almost Sabbath-y" quality of early-'70s African psych music, also prefers rock 'n' roll from abroad. Both men appreciate how overseas artists don't end up sounding as straight-ahead as their American counterparts. "The filter that musicians from other parts of the world put on a Western style is really, really interesting," Habibion says. "It almost gets to the heart of [rock] quicker."
Obits' oddities take time to discern, but they're certainly there — and they reward listeners with the patience to listen for them. But dedicated Jehu fans will first have to come to terms with the fact that this new outfit is at its core a traditional-leaning rock band, regardless of what clever twists the members are hiding up their sleeves.
"This is probably the first time, at least for Rick and for me, where we can experiment with a more traditional component and feel pretty comfortable with it," Habibion says. "As long as it doesn't make us cringe or feel too corny, we don't mind embracing a cliché now and again."