Monica Nelson is convinced that she's ugly and can't sing. At any show by her most recent (and recently defunct) punk-'n'-roll vehicle, Generation, she could be found with her bleached hair tucked under an antiquated hat and her eyes made up like an Egyptian, commenting between songs on how talentless she is.
Still, pretty much everyone in the Northwest (and beyond) is convinced Nelson's pipes are made of gold (and, heck, I'll vouch for the woman's good looks). Claudia Gehrke, onetime booker for Seattle's Vogue, recounts the first time the Obituaries—Nelson's best-loved and now reunited band—played Seattle in '86: "When [Nelson] took the stage, she was like a porcelain doll; you could feel the tension in the room. When she finally belted out, people were in awe. For such a small and fragile person, she had a huge voice. They were such a surprise."
Now, more than 20 years later, the once-complete-train-wreck Nelson says, "[I have] the self-knowledge that I'm not gonna kill myself at any moment. There's more important things going on in the world than my own troubles." But it's likely to be the same tense story at the Obituaries' gig this Thursday (the band's first in 13 years). Derby O'Donnell, author of the 1998 drug-fiction book Space Bastards and former SLA guitarist, says, "I've seen [Nelson] at the top of her game [with] stage fright." But he agrees there's no need for it: "She's got a range, not just in octaves, but a stylistic range that nobody can touch. I can name a lot of great singers [who] had their distinctive style, but Monica's got a dozen styles she can pull out anytime she wants."
On top of that, Nelson's secured a partnership with talented guitarist Rob Landoll (with whom she's jammed on and off since the Obits). O'Donnell continues, "Rob had this great party house, and he mostly just threw parties for bands that wanted to play. Then he decided he'd start playing guitar and I never saw anybody learn so fast in my whole life. I had been playing for years and years, and in six months he was better than me, hands down."
But in addition to musicianship, the Obituaries wrote great songs. The main riff from "The Couch"—which could be slipped into a Clorox Girls or Descendents song without raising an eyebrow—seems carefree at first, but Nelson's tone instantly communicates its gravity. A narrative about a suicide attempt and sexual assault by firearm, the song's chilling—and an absolute lyrical feat for a girl of 19. And "Living at Home" captures the repression of living with one's parents, "in a place where nothing changes," as only a teenager could.
The Obits went through bass players and drummers like condoms, but the 2007 lineup features the band's longest-running bassist, Regina LaRocca, and its most recent drummer, James Mahone. (So the Obits' classic—and now out-of-print—songs will be played by a respectable cast.) And the best news is, they're already working on more punk-blues anthems. Despite cult fame, the band is self-releasing its new material in a month or two: An older, wiser Nelson says, "We don't have time to wait around."
The Obituaries play Thursday, Aug. 2, at Dante's with Pierced Arrows and the Oblivion Seekers. 9 pm. $5. 21+. For extended Q&As and more on the Obituaries, visit LocalCut.com.