You know, in this line of work, that of dissecting, and delineating upon, the works and careers of various musical performers- especially over a long period of time (as is surely the case with this particular temeritous curmudgeon)- there is a tendency to forget. No, nor is it all alcohol or drug-induced.
Time has a way of immortalizing names, while diminishing the context and impact of their contributions, in the recollection. Specifics become clouded and indistinct in the mists of memory. Such is the case with the band the Obituaries, arguably the greatest punk band ever to come out of Portland (fans of Poison Idea, I hear you- but, technically, they weren’t a punk band), or anywhere else, for that matter.
Fiery guitarist Rob Landoll and rocketfuel spewing vocalist Monica Nelson have convened, immolated to sheer oxygen ash, and re-convened numerous times over the past twenty-one years. After long ago conferring upon Regina LaRocca the position as band bassist- and enduring a long succession of drummers, second only to that of Spinal Tap- the Obituaries have managed to amass a body of recorded work which rivals anything any major punk band from the 80s or 90s have within their own individual oeuvres and arsenals.
This compendium of twenty-three songs, culled from the span of the two decades, since their inception in 1986 to the present, demonstrates without question the sheer power and passion found within the diminutive milieu of a three-minute song- as sung by a missile launcher, accompanied by an AK-47 and other serious musical weaponry.
What is odd, in a way, is that most of these songs deal with issues of teenage love and romance, but only in the rawest and the most naked of emotional terms. The antecedents of Monica’s songs lie not only in the lap of Patti Smith, but at the bosom of Ronnie Spector. One can hear threads of Johnette Napolitano and Concrete Blond coupled with the Shangri-las of the 60s in these performances. Nina Hagen and Darlene Love. X and BB King.
It is amazing, yet abundantly clear that both Rob and Monica were heavily schooled, at early ages, in the blues, as well as in punk. It is, in part, just this intricately woven juxtaposition of teenaged angst and adult psychopathy, sewn together with the thread of blues neurosis, which make of this collection such an amazingly wrenching experience.
The songs that are not centered around “romance” are focused on other interpersonal relationships and the subtle knives of betrayal which cut, not to kill, but to deeply wound for life. The misunderstandings which deprive a soul of peace. No one, no one, sings the searing siren song of anomie and disenfranchisement with more certitude and conviction than Monica Nelson. No one. She has lived it. She has warmed her hands at her own incinerator barrel-full of the burning refuse of her private personal torment. No clearer picture painted. Not by Bosch. Not by Munch.
As an accompanist to this act of self-evisceration, no sharper scalpel could be applied than the surgeon-like punk precision of Rob Landoll’s guitar work. Never repetitious or stilted, always succinct and supplely supportive, while steadily in front of the fray, Rob is never a crank-it-to-eleven punk head banger, but always incredibly sensitive to the amazing spectrum of emotions and feelings which Monica can explore, sometimes in some of the most seemingly innocent of lyrical scenarios.
It is absolutely impossible, here, to single out a track or two for closer review, as every cut included is deserving of intensive inspection. Of special interest are six or more radio edits recorded live at KBOO, here in Portland and at KDVS at University of California at Davis; three live recordings taken from the board at Satyricon; as well as a number of other oddities. Every song has something to recommend it, an impact all it’s own. Each song sounds as fresh and new today as when it was recorded. Precocious.
The Obituaries are again reformed and performing, now with James Mahone (M99) in the drum position. They will next play in Portland on New Years Eve at the Tonic Lounge on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. They are not to be missed. Neither is this disc one to be overlooked. It is an extraordinary testament to the majestic furor und drang borne of this reckless world.
The incendiary history of the band is often lost in the nouveau “weirdness” that is today’s Portland and its local music scene- but a small example of the power of the Obituaries, in their day: October 23, 1987 the Obits headlined a show at Satyricon- where their opening act for the evening was some band from Seattle called Soundgarden.
This is not to say, in the least, that the Obituaries greatness is in any way former. As a singer and songwriter, Monica Nelson is better than ever, today. Like a bottle of fine wine, Rob Landoll’s guitar work continues to mature and flourish as he ages. Regina LaRocca is simply a goddess of the bass. These recordings prove that, beyond even the most unreasonable of doubts, the Obituaries are one of the great bands in Portland’s music history, deserving of all the accolades that can be heaped upon them.