February 1999 – album reviews – Sebadoh’s ‘The Sebadoh’ (“their greatest strength (is) their talent for presenting us with soft-bodied, delicate songs of couplehood and everyday agony”)

22 Feb
Sebadoh: 'The Sebadoh'

Sebadoh: ‘The Sebadoh’

Among the awkward indie sods, few come with more of a reputation than long-serving Sebadoh. Lo-fi with a vengeance, prone to self-destruction and fucking up at festivals whenever they’ve got a hope of TV exposure. Painstakingly democratic instrument-swapping anti-stars, given to blasting themselves and their beloved audience with wilful destructive sarcasm to sabotage the climb. Glued to the underground as fervently as a cult-wedded couple, and rumoured to take umbrage at the slightest suggestion that they’ve taken a chart-friendly direction. And still A Success, with main Sebah-dude Lou Barlow scoring (bing!) a massive chart hit as Folk Implosion and the band recently joining him there with Flame, the single that heralded this new album.

“Herald” being the right word. All over the presskit, all over the media, you’ll find people trumpeting about the rebirth of Sebadoh. They’re using samples! They did ‘Top Of the Pops’! They sacked their old drummer because – wait for it – he wasn’t playing well enough (so much for punk values). They’ve gotten a serious case of polished songs, where once they only had Lou Barlow shambling knee-deep through uncut gems. They’re the underground gone overground (what? again? what’s new?). And you think “OK, cult-hero indie sloggers go for the cash, get in good producer and just become slightly better at what they do”, and you brace yourself for college rock.

But the big surprise is that ‘The Sebadoh’ is really much better than that. Never mind Flame. That was never much more than a Motown sample grafted onto a serviceable indie-Stones bash: Satisfaction with a topping of contemporary irony. Fine as far as it goes for student disco fodder, but nothing magical. It’s the rest of the album that makes you sit up and take notice. Thank God: the anointed indie underground isn’t all Silverchair and Jon Spencer’s Sluice Incursion. Barlow, Jason Loewenstein and new boy Russ Pollard do have good songs, and they didn’t have to bland down or muckrake to prove it.

They might kick off the album with a mighty feedback buzz for reassurance, but hiding behind dodgy sound is a mug’s game: Sebadoh have been in this game long enough to learn how to ride the gremlins. Their recipe randomly spices up the rough-honed American indie ingredients adding bits of Stax, a smidgin or two of classic British guitar pop, a helping of grunge stubble, occasional flinty piano and backroom electronics, a pinch of (hey!) classic rock, some barbed twists of good old middle-class revolt, and the odd joke.

And they still play like horny fifteen-year-olds. The slithery lo-fi synths, wild “whoop whoop” backing vocals and pronky guitar racket of It’s All You is like Supergrass on extra monkey glands; even if, at the core, it’s Lou fretting about love again. Pissed off because he can’t get her off his mind while she’s away; pissed off because he’s found something special that cuts him off from everything else. You can’t win in Sebadoh land.

Which is odd, given Sebadoh’s particular gifts; their greatest strength being their talent for presenting us with soft-bodied, delicate songs of couplehood and everyday agony, providing honesty without preciousness. Like Tree’s exquisite, subtly psychedelic sweetness, tapping into the same folk vein REM drank from for ‘Out of Time’: a lightfooted dance of acoustic guitars and lapping textures, gardening representing couplehood, and talk of earth and growing things that never makes you think “hippy”.

The heart-breaking Love is Stronger is another orchards-worth of tremulous guitars and murmuring noises, as Lou pleads “please give me back my life / if you plan to let this die” while trying to brave it out: “I said I don’t mind, when I do – ‘cos I’d do anything for you, / and watch us waste away, if you smile – / and if we lose it all in style.” The final, hardest irony is the song’s gloriously optimistic title; when Lou’s discovery is that the only thing love overpowers is his ability to deal with the truth and the falling apart of things.

Between the soft bits, there’s still enough fuzz’n’grime on ‘The Sebadoh’ to satisfy that have-a-go-indie fetish. Sebadoh can probably do this in their sleep now, though it’s to their credit that when they do chuck up a hairball of noise it’s uncontrived. Drag Down fits the bill nicely – dirty big riff pieces, sloppy tunings, wayward vocals lurching into hardcore screeches when the tension jacks up a notch, and foaming-mouthed jaded-boyfriend words. Or Bird in the Hand’s yells, berserk-spin-dryer feedback noises and noisy crashing; or Nick of Time with its disconnected drumming fitting onto the song like a back-to-front coat.

The mopey cave of sullen pop noise in So Long is the only thing that sounds like it made it on as a lazy bet. Skip it for the horror-movie insults in Decide’s wracked, speedhappy swat of psychedelic garage: “love, hate; expression of your dead weight… / You give faith to deadly snakes… / I made a mistake, trusting you with what I make.” Or for the highpoints of Sebadoh’s slap-happier side: Cuban’s smashed, smudged crash into salsa – worthy of dEUS – and the hangdog Sugar gripe of Sorry. The latter’s impatient and unrepentant anti-hero is at least honest enough to admit that, for him, American manners are no more than cheap lubrication (“working for a sex life, climbing a mountain – and I think I’m losing my grip. / Once I’m falling (and I think I’m falling), there’s no getting back on it”) and humiliating embarrassment: “when my face makes that sorry shape, I know what I am but I lost my grace… / I want you to know that the more that I say it, the less it means in the end…”

Certainly part of Sebadoh involves spitting back some of the pieties of the America they’re living in. Not punk shock tactics, but an espousal of the inner revolution – maybe half-hearted, half-cocked, but at least a halfway step. On one song Lou advises “you’re threatened by this little town. / So lock your door, and break free.” The angry edge of Colourblind (another kickback to the Stones, but this time to their psychotic end-of-the-’60s buzz) has him seething at the turn things have taken, sampled crunches of protest songs rolling under his guitar: “black and white and beautiful – why’d they make it ugly? / Crackers in their camouflage, headed for the hills… / Wish we were colourblind, we could heal ourselves. / Wish I was invisible – I’d sink into myself.”

Sebadoh might be cradled in the heart of the nation of success; yet they’re holding hands, in resigned solidarity, with its deadbeats and disaffected. It takes Thrive – with its bristly guitars like sardonic eyelids – to fully express Sebadoh’s touchy, ungracious honesty. Their acceptance of failings (“pick a habit you can trust, we all need the reassurance”), and their knowledge that living with the partial failure of life isn’t such a disaster. “Back when I was young and clever and traced a pattern in the world / I thought I’d get my shit together – now I know I never could… / But we still thrive.” Indeed, knowing that that’s increasingly the way we live. And that we no longer have to justify it.

All together now: follow the Lou in one last comfortable bird-flip as we supplant our parents in those scruffy armchairs. “We’re too old to apologise” Awkward buggers rule.

Sebadoh: ‘The Sebadoh’
Domino Recording Co. Ltd , WIGCD 57 (5034202005728) / WIGLP 57 (5034202005711)
CD/vinyl album
22nd February 1999
Get it from: Domino Recordings store, Amazon Music or Google Play; stream via Soundcloud, Deezer, Apple Music or Spotify
Sebadoh online:
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