By Franklin Soults
Sebadoh’s new album, The Sebadoh, opens with a sustained dull electric buzz, like the sound of a cheap guitar amp turned up too loud. It’s a noise many old fans will surely take as a sonic welcome mat. After an unprecedented three-year hiatus, the loss of drummer Bob Fay, and the move to LA by founding member and longtime Massachusetts slacker Lou Barlow, that buzz signals Sebadoh’s continued allegiance to the little grease-stained flag of lo-fi.
But the trio’s been at it so long that “lo-fi” no longer means what it did when ex-Dinosaur Jr bassist Barlow and his original partner, Eric Gaffney, began their informal side project in the depths of the mid-80s. Then, it was a mission that challenged the very idea of a “band,” turning what historically has been a cohesive musical unit working toward a common goal into a loose gathering of friends who just happen to hit the “record” button together. Now, however, the band has lost its quote marks and become the mission–the article in the album title alone proclaims it. After that initial buzz, The Sebadoh quickly demonstrates that “lo-fi” is now the notion that deserves the ironic punctuation.
For this the album has been received with mixed reviews, some of which hint at a kind of betrayal. It shows how far back Sebadoh’s roots go: these days this kind of sentiment is aired more often in the rap world than in the rock arena. Though lo-fi has always been one of the least funky sounds in an alt-rock continuum increasingly influenced by hip-hop, in a way it has always functioned in that continuum with the same puritanical regulatory force as “keepin’ it real” has in rap. Speaking by phone from his new house in LA, Barlow hinted at this by stressing hip-hop’s effect on his aesthetic: “The funny thing is, I think hip-hop has been one of the most influential things to us, just sort of almost spiritually. It’s been that way from Sebadoh III  on, pretty much. Just because of the ferocity of when N.W.A came out, there was the shock of this new blood in hip-hop with a new edginess to it. To me, that stuff was a real influence, in that it just got me to get off my ass and do something that represents me, the way that I feel.”
Barlow’s equation of rawness with honest self-expression is a close cousin to hip-hop’s timeworn equation of badness with authenticity. Just as gangsta rappers have passed off their deviant poses as reportage, Sebadoh and other lo-fi acts have often instinctively claimed that their tinny guitars, fuzzy home recordings, makeshift compositions, and ramshackle performances are a direct expression of day-to-day living. This ensures the democratic thrill of the music–the feeling it could come from any street corner or any corner bedroom–but it also ensures vexing limitations on the whole notion of an artistic career.
These limitations, or at least foreshadowings of them, were present even on Sebadoh III, the album often celebrated as the group’s crowning achievement. Lo-fi it certainly is, with its thin, random, one-take potshots, some straight rocking and some singer-songwriter tender, many experimentally discordant and a few utterly incoherent. Yet even in this hodgepodge, there’s a noticeable strain between perverse art-rock obscurantist Gaffney and oversensitive folk primitive Barlow. Gaffney seems to believe, like old-school Sonic Youth, that confusion is sex (or at least sexy); Barlow wants to convey some very exact feelings about events in his life, a feat he accomplishes most notably in his acerbic kiss-off to J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr, “The Freed Pig.” As that number’s carefully worked ironies demonstrate, and as Barlow himself said over the phone, “music is a craft like any art.” And craft requires artifice and discipline.
Even so, Barlow still believed in the rightness of the collective approach, and he continues to do so: “In the 60s there were bands that had multiple songwriters like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and the Beatles,” he explains. “You had people who had definite styles working together. To me that’s a way to make music much more interesting. Through the 70s and the 80s people got into the idea of a band being one guy with a personal vision and a scrappy bunch of guys behind him who are there to present his tough rockin’ image. It’s sort of the idea of Bruce Springsteen, or Tom Petty, or whatever: the idea of these rough-hewn, Dylan-influenced geniuses who are at the head of this family of people that produce these very homogeneous records. That’s not really where we come from. We’re much more about the 60s colliding with hardcore and new wave and stuff that really does away with that.”
Sebadoh III was released on the definitive late-80s indie label, Homestead, the same year Nirvana–arguably a group of scrappy musicians behind one guy with a very powerful, very personal vision–killed the 80s dead with Nevermind. That album seemed to affect Barlow, who says “those songs just totally burrowed their way into my head,” and as if on cue, Sebadoh left Homestead for the definitive early-90s indie label, Sub Pop.
There the tension between Gaffney and Barlow finally imploded, on their 1993 album, Bubble and Scrape. While Gaffney went off the deep end with ever more willful noise collages, Barlow continued to hone his tender ‘n’ tormented vision–developing a choked, slightly off-key signature sound that suggested he was listening closely to how Kurt Cobain had been listening closely to new-school Sonic Youth. Luckily, new recruit Jason Loewenstein, who’d played drums on Sebadoh III, stepped forward as a buffer, contributing dark, unkempt numbers like “Happily Divided” and “Sister.” Within a year Gaffney was gone, new drummer Bob Fay was aboard, and as bassist on 1994’s Bakesale, Loewenstein slipped into the role of Barlow’s foil.
He was good at it, too, but that album worked mostly because Barlow played Springsteen, busting out with unstoppable romantic anguish that couldn’t be met halfway. On the next album, Harmacy (1996), the old dynamic returned; tune guy Barlow and rock guy Loewenstein split the work down the middle, even as both continued to refine their craft.
The Sebadoh is where they start talking to each other, Barlow rocking out to rein in the romance (except on “Tree,” through which the sap runs a little too freely), Loewenstein working on his melodies as hard as he once worked on his riffs. The sweet grooving breaks in the hard rolling “Decide” are his, and two of the most upbeat numbers, “Sorry” and “Weird,” are by Barlow. And new drummer Russ Pollard’s one credit, “Break Free,” stands its ground with the best of the rest, its Beatlesy psychedelic tinge complementing the other touches of 60s rock throughout the disc, from Barlow’s Pete Townshend-like power chords to the cheesy organ fills.
This new relative cohesiveness forms the basis of much of the criticism that’s been leveled at the record. Says Barlow: “Some people who have heard the new album have the same reaction. ‘Wow, you’ve really cleaned it up this time!’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa! More than on Harmacy?’…[But] I do know why [they say it], I think: it’s because this record sounds like a unified piece, so it suggests this cleanliness or order to it.”
Whatever the reason, even the perception of cleanliness and order is a long way from what originally made the band so arresting–an intense, messy mix of solipsistic romanticism and experimentation that felt excitingly raw and unmeditated (if not exactly unpremeditated). But then no one can hang out on the corner forever. The amazing thing about The Sebadoh is that the trio has figured out how to leave it together.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Johnny Gunta; album cover.