One album, a handful of compilation tracks, a limited CD release of outtakes and live versions, one split single. Until recently, that’s been the complete Oblio Joes discography. A better-than-average output for most Missoula bands, but after nearly nine years of playing together? The Obes are still the Band That Just Got Out of Bed. You’d better believe them when they tell you that they just play to play, because they certainly aren’t in it to win it with market share.
The Oblio Joes are an interesting case study in the evolution of recording media available to Missoula bands. When they first started recording for themselves in 1993, a DIY cassette release that could easily be duplicated in small quantities at home and packaged with a Kinko’s J-card and maybe some stickers were about the most a local band could aspire to without a significant outlay of cash. Blank tapes and paper were cheap, and so was recording. Somebody always had an eight-track recorder lying around and was willing to spend a day or two recording and mixing for payment on the barter system—beer, weed, and maybe even a little of whatever cash a band had managed to sock away in the band kitty. (My band’s first cassette release cost us about $50 and a case of PBR stubbies to record. Back when they were still made, it was a fine tradition to bring along a case of 11-ounce peebers when visiting the old Oblio house on the West Side. Once drained of their liquid contents, the cartons—empties and all—were signed by the donor and added to the wall of spent cases that served as an interior partition between the living room and the dining room.)
The demo, Christmas Break 1993 (of which perhaps four copies, no shit, were ever in circulation) was followed in early 1994 by All Ages Show. A bona fide Missoula classic, among the 11 tracks of pure lo-fi magic can be found all the popular favorites in the early Oblios repertoire: “My Way,” “Into the Sun,” “Desiree,” “See Jack Ride,” and a purgative eight-minute blowout of “In Love and Insane,” which in many ways is still the ultimate Oblio Joes song. A plangent love song borne on a squall of feedback and great howling sheets of swaggering guitar, way back then it could stop your heart to hear it live. How it ever survived the transition to tape I will never know, but whenever I listen to it I can hardly keep myself from crying.
“Desiree” was the first Oblios song to appear on a CD (in this case, a compilation released by the now-forgotten Ghost Meat label), and, I’m pretty sure, the first song by any band in the Missoula scene at that time to make it to the digital format. The all-Missoula CD compilation that followed in 1995 also included songs by the Oblios alongside tracks by Honky Sausage (now the Fireballs of Freedom), Open Face, The Banned and Shangri-La Speedway. But it wasn’t until Lo! came out on CD in 1997 that they really had a professionally recorded, full-length testament to what a spectacular band they’d become. Compiled from two summer sessions at the San Jose studio run by a friend of drummer Dan Strachan’s late brother, Lo! Was, and still is, a nearly perfect record in every way.
I distinctly recall a sense of relief when Lo! was released. Although I’d been hearing some of the songs for two years or more and listening to the studio versions on a tape Johnny Joe made for me for at least three months before the CD came out, there was still something about sitting down to the first listen of the disc itself for the first time that really drew one of those big black remember-this-moment lines around the experience. In a way, though, it also drew a line between the past and future Oblio Joes in my mind. Guitarist Stu Simonson moved to Olympia not long thereafter (he’s since come back), the band played out less, and the beauty of Lo! slowly but surely came to replace the Oblios themselves.
That’s probably why I’m having such a hard time finding room for these nine songs upstairs. Going from seeing the band several times a month to a couple of times a year and then having a sheaf of new songs presented en masse like this, it’s as though half of the tunes on Sin Tax and Some Antics just showed up on the doorstep one day because they heard some friends were staying here, and would it be OK if they stayed, too? Some of the tunes are familiar enough (“Don’t Believe,” “Flat Earth Defender,”), but elsewhere they’re like shades of someone faintly recognizable by a slight family resemblance, but nothing more.
Such, it seems, is the remarkable transformation from raggedy pop superstars into something much more sophisticated and—man, I can hardly bring myself to say it—grown up that the Oblios have undergone in the four years since Lo! was released. The clever wordplay and laconic vocals are there, but dissonance as a rogue strategy for achieving beauty has been replaced by more complicated arrangements and a more focused topicality. Oblio Joes songs have always been populated by real people, but on Sin Tax they’re more likely to be moralistic senators (“Senator Sam”) and people pondering their mortality on crowded airplanes (“Among Strangers”) than the characters so wonderfully, woozily adrift on Lo!
Something has certainly been gained; something has also been lost, although I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. There are plenty of magical Oblio moments in the cooing backup vocals and chiming head-rush guitars on Sin Tax. But I still wish they could come back and live with me in the snowflake sparkle of those first open chords on “Space Opera.”