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No Time For Mourning

Moving into the rock 'n' roll unknown, the Obits take their punk roots along

The Obits prove punk's not dead (though it is getting on in years).

By Aileen Torres | Posted 4/1/2009

To listen to Obits' debut album, I Blame You (Sub Pop), is to know that there are very few bands around like them. They sing loud, they play fast, and there's a driving pulse to their music, a not-quite-recessive strand of post-hardcore DNA. The Washington, D.C. hardcore scene is where the Obits came up, and while they've evolved through the years--lost the bark for the song, perhaps--they retain a part of that initial sound and spirit.

Singer/guitarist Sohrab Habibion grew up in the D.C. area, playing as a member of the art-punk group Edsel during the late '80s to late-'90s, releasing an EP on Dischord in 1997. That band's labelmates and other related bands "were, I think, making just incredible music," Habibion says during a phone interview from his current home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "When I was in high school, I lived for going to see Embrace play, or Rites of Spring. That music and that place had a huge influence."

That scene's influence is audible in Obits' music. The choppy rhythms are there, and so are the strained vocals and harsh delivery. Embrace then-frontman Ian MacKaye shouted out lyrics when he sang, often times drowning out the instruments. Guy Picciotto, who later became MacKaye's band mate in Fugazi, also sang with raw energy, but there was a slightly more emotional tinge to his vocals, and he delivered them in a way that didn't overpower the music.

The Obits' co-singer/guitarist Rick Froberg's style occupies the space between: He tends to shout when he sings, but he allows the melody to set some limits. "I'm not a good voice singer, so you have to find other ways to deliver lyrics, like, through the phrasing," Froberg says in a phone interview from his home, also in Brooklyn.

The confrontational vocal delivery is a main feature of the Obits, but the band pays attention to nuances of melody and lead guitar as well. The resulting sound is like classic rock descended from hardcore or post-hardcore. "People make comparisons to CCR because they hear, you know, a chord that sounds like a CCR chord," Froberg says. "You wouldn't hear that in the other bands I was in," bands that include revered, defunct notables Hot Snakes, Drive Like Jehu, and Pitchfork.

Habibion explains that a balance between the vocals and instruments is something the band aims toward. "It's not that sort of classic singer/songwriter thing where you know you're trying to get this lyric out and figuring out how the chords work around it," he says. "We actually start from a much more musical point of view where one of us will either introduce an idea or something will kind of accidentally rear its head in a practice session and we'll just start working on it. And then we usually try to get the music to a certain point where we'll feel like it's solidly written as a tune and then sort of use that as the basic building blocks. And then, when Rick comes in with the vocal melody, we'll make some appropriate adjustments so that it sounds more written around the voice. I think we're very aware of the need for that, even though that isn't necessarily the way it starts."

Lead guitar duties are shared between the two singers. "We switch it up pretty regularly," Habibion says. "And it's not something that we actually think about or talk about. It's more song-appropriate, or however it seems to work in a given thing. It's funny, this is the first band that either one of us has been in that there's sort of been something that would be considered a lead guitar. I think it's something that, coming from hardcore/punk-rock, it's verboten, you know, to break out the solo. So it's interesting to sort of explore that a little bit and see where we can go with it and try to [do] things that we think are musically interesting. Not just, you know, super indulgent exercises in ferocious flashing."

The song "Two-Headed Coin," for instance, starts off with an instrumental emphasis; first the drum and bass, then the rhythm guitar, then the lead, all playing together for about a minute before Froberg starts singing. And while there is definitely a lead guitar, it doesn't call too much attention to itself. The riff is a relaxed, slurred series of arpeggios, and it blends in well with the rapid bass staccato and provides a smooth lead-in to Froberg's vocals.

The title track of the album is an instrumental in which, again, the lead guitar is there but subtle. The riff is a simple hammer-on and pull-off, and it gives the tune movement and color without overdoing anything. "There isn't one sort of main component [to the Obits music]," Froberg says. "There's lots of different things going on." And true to its punk history, the Obits pull things together by doing "whatever works, by any means necessary."

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