Sebadoh for Sale
Some albums come and go from your life. Sebadoh’s seminal 1994 album Bakesale was one of those records I needed when I was an awkward and addled university student. Then, at some point, the record left my possession. I no longer needed to be drawn into its pensive and confused power. Bakesale was a crucial record for me when it was released, something that filled the gap left by Kurt Cobain’s suicide earlier in the year. It was a transitional year for me, as I graduated from high school and moved to a big city two hours away from my country hometown. I had encountered culture shock, as I simply was awed by living away from my parents for the first time. Bakesale, which was released just a few weeks before I embarked on my personal journey away from home, seemed to speak to me as a perpetually lovelorn and confused individual, still unsure of my identity.
I’d already been familiar with the band, from high school when I was loaned a CD of the wonderfully schizophrenic Bubble and Scrape. Bakesale was another entity altogether. It saw the band, which had undergone a key personnel change, moving in a new direction, away from the pot-infused sonic noise experiments of the previous record, into something more streamlined and pop. What’s more, there are statements on Bakesale punctuated by righteous anger, in the midst of all of the heartache usually brought to the table by frontman Lou Barlow. It was exactly that mix of toxicity and sweetness which spoke to me during that very frantic first year of university studies. Bakesale, I would say, is the ultimate frosh album. It taps into a certain zeitgeist of being away from home for the first time.
There’s a reason for that. The band, in and of itself, was moving beyond the confines of the Boston-area indie scene into something broader, in terms of personal scope and commercial ambition. Bassist Jason Loewenstein had moved from Massachusetts to Louisville, Kentucky. In the process of recording Bakesale, drummer Eric Gaffney left the band, after threatening to do so on and off for a while. He was replaced by the more than capable Bob Fay (a really nice guy I can say, as I got to meet him after a concert). Thus, change was afoot in Sebadoh. Bakesale marked new territory for the trio. It would turn out to be a lucrative move (as lucrative as you could get then on an independent label), as Bakesale marks the commercial and critical apex of the band. “Skull” and “Rebound” were hits on college radio, and the album wound up on many year-end “best of” lists in music publications. While some fans might prefer Sebadoh III, and some, like myself, are enamoured by Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale is a totemic touchstone of a record, one that is arguably as important to the development of indie-rock as a form as Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand and Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, both released the same year. Your personal preference might vary, but Bakesale is the ultimate Sebadoh album, arguably because it is simply the most well-known.
As part of the band’s ongoing reissue campaign, Sub Pop has finally put out a remastered version of Bakesale, complete with a second disc of 25 tracks culled from an EP and various singles that have been, until now, almost impossible to find. It is a revelation to hear it all over again, some 17 years removed. The biggest thing that strikes me about Bakesale is just how country it sounds – which is not an inconsequential observation when you consider there’s a composition on the bonus disc titled “Hank Williams”. For all of the talk of Sebadoh’s folksy origins and lo-fi bedroom rock sense of aesthetics, Bakesale has moments where you can hear a discernible twang to the proceedings, something I was unable to grasp upon the record’s initial release. Album closer “Together or Alone” is a particular torch ballad meant to leave you crying in your beer near closing time. “Not a Friend” has a particular Southern drawl to it. “Give Up” is a fast and frenetic cowpunk anthem. You can also imagine “Skull” being reimagined or reconstituted, as cringe-worthy as this may sound, by the likes of a Toby Keith, if he could get past the druggy lyrics. It may be that earlier recordings had countrified moments on it – think “Soul and Fire” from Bubble and Scrape – but Bakesale seems to be the place where this element of Sebadoh’s sound came together in a unified fashion.
The re-emergence of Bakesale offers more than a nostalgic gaze back to indie rock’s fledgling glory days. It still holds up as a consistent set of 15 songs. Yes, there are a few weak tracks and throwaways to be found here – and when I owned it in 1994, there were tracks that I certainly skipped over – but they seem to prop up and create valleys for the standouts. In fact, listening to Bakesale all of these years later, it is striking that for all of its diamond-in-the-rough qualities, it is a strong and cohesive artistic statement of the highest order. The hits come fast and furious at a breakneck speed: “License to Confuse”, “Magnet’s Coil”, “Skull”, “Shit Soup”, “Rebound”, “Drama Mine” and “Together or Alone”. Collectively, these are some of the most memorable peaks in the entire back catalogue of the group, and they are still as awesome and revelatory today as they were back in the day.
Barlow, in particular, is on top of his game here, and the liner notes indicate that this period of his life was an incredibly happy and productive one (which is why he has refused to listen to the disc to this day, for fear of dashing the warm, fuzzy memories away). At the time, in person, he was confident and assured with this batch of songs. Sebadoh happened to play the university I was studying at in the fall of 1994 – one of the first major concerts that I managed to go to, so it stands out – and during their set, Barlow whipped through the Bakesale songs with particular glee and passion. In fact, when some goons in the audience started yelling out for Barlow to play his patented slacker anthem “Gimme Indie Rock” between songs, Lou just stepped up to the mic and mumbled “I’m not a fucking jukebox.” Clearly, his artistic vision and confidence in the songs he was playing – and, no, “Gimme Indie Rock” did not make an appearance that night – was remarkably focused. You got the sense that he clearly was right at his peak, and made no apologizes for it. That makes the cover art used for Bakesale, of a one-year-old Barlow reaching into a toilet, all the more ironic and wry.
Bakesale speaks directly to the feelings of the late teenaged/early twentysomething white male, though its themes are decidedly more universal than that. When Barlow yelps on album opener “License to Confuse” that “I’m not attractive today / I’m not a sight for sore eyes / I’m not an Adam and Eve / I’m just a nervous young thing”, you feel the self-loathing and ambiguity of youth practically oozing right out of the song. While the perspective of the album is ultimately male, I also recall that one young girl from Toronto I was studying with back in 1994 made “Rebound” her personal anthem, having broken up recently with a guy in her hometown. (She was looking to score with another guy in our dormitory, much to my dismay as I kind of had a thing for her – I have to admit I did like her taste in music.) I also seem to recall that Loewenstein’s “Not Too Amused” was a bit of a personal favourite of mine, in all of its cathartic glory. While the song is a particular kiss-off to an individual woman, I took it as a call to arms against all of the women in my life whom appeared to be slighting me, by simply refusing to go out with me. The song churns and gradually builds up in intensity, and it practically roars itself into being. Bakesale, as a whole, is full of such moments of loathing, but they’re mixed in with the upbeat and hopeful – something I refused or was incapable of twigging into when I was younger. In listening it to it again years later, I realize there are layers to this album that makes Bakesale just as relevant to someone approaching middle-age in singledom as it was to a down-on-his-luck fresh-faced frosh.
The bonus disc of extras is particularly revealing, on a number of fronts. It is here that the more experimental aspects of the band are more apparent. The collection begins with the 49-second sample collage “MOR Backlash”, which features a barely discernable clip of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” skipping against a backdrop of garish sound effects. “Drumstick Jumble” is a carnival of different keyboard and acoustic guitar sounds literally jumbled against some jazzy, free-form skin pounding. “Cementville” is yet another avant-garde free-form slice of discordant keyboard sounds squiggling together into an abrasive, noisy mix. You also get a number of demos of songs that appeared on Bakesale, sometimes with different lyrics and different approaches. The bonus disc also showcases the direction that Sebadoh would eventually go in. You get essentially four-track demo or acoustic versions of “On Fire” and “Perfect Way” – two songs that would eventually appear on 1996’s Harmacy. The real highlight for me, though, is the appearance of “Sing Something/Plate of Hatred”, a song that I’m familiar with as I had obtained, through Internet connections back in the day, the official bootleg In Tokyo in which the song appears. This lo-fi version doesn’t eclipse the live version, but it’s still nice to have. Ergo, for collectors, there’s a wealth of material here worth getting your hands on.
It’s hard to not overstate the importance of Bakesale in its repackaged form, but it is, in all sense of finality, the ultimate distillation of their sound, which naturally makes it the place for neophytes to the band to get their feet wet. These are songs that captivate and hold you enthralled, with your ears kept close to the speaker cone to reveal their antagonistic tunefulness. Bakesale is an album for youth. For the slightly older than that, it will make you feel young and joyful again in all of its knotted emotional angst. There was a time at the end of my university adventures when Bakesale left my possession for the reason that it seemed to no longer speak to me directly, and partially due to the fact that I suppose I simply got sick of the songs, but I can conclusively say that I’m particularly overjoyed to get this record back into my life, as they reveal shades of a band that I never was able to grasp existed. Bakesale is a near-perfect encapsulation of the band’s patented bass-heavy indie-rock sound – and, truthfully, no Sebadoh album is entirely perfect on its own merits. For ardent followers of the ‘90s American underground, it is a near-essential purchase. If it has gotten away from you over time, as it did me, it is a record that you need back. You’ll be happily glad and joyfully surprised upon the repossession of this great, cathartic statement from a group that is more than just a historic footnote in the emergence of the lo-fi scene.
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