Originally formed as a vent for Lou Barlow’s frustrations built up as a member of Dinosaur and an outlet for his and Eric Gaffney’s outré sound experiements, Sebadoh is now inseparable from our retrospective notion of 1990s indie rock, a genre label it helped turn into a caricature even while giving it wider currency with the song “Gimme Indie Rock” (included as part of this reissue’s disc of bonus tracks, along with the rest of the EP on which it originally appeared). I haven’t done any actual philological work on this, but memory tells me that in the late 1980s, the preferred nomenclature for music that wasn’t on pop or classic-rock radio and wasn’t punk or hardcore was “college rock” or “underground music”. Indie rock seems like it was only applied after the fact, after bands that once could be found only on independent labels or independent record stores started to sign to major labels—Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, R.E.M. It didn’t seem like a term you’d ever apply to your own band.
Now the phrase indie rock seems to crystallize everything that was phony about the underground rock scene as it was just beginning to flourish in the early 1990s: the posturing for credibility, the contempt for production values, the self-satisfied irony, the studied indifference, the painful self-consciousness. Sebadoh’s song sends all of that up without having to explicitly mention any of it. You certainly don’t get the impression that they thought they belonged to that genre. Though Sebadoh would become known primarily for purveying its own special brand of proto-emo perfect for bespectacled liberal arts majors on later albums, in 1991 they were barely known outside of the coterie of record-store denizens who circulated the primitive cassettes the band made in the fashion of Daniel Johnston (shameless confession minus mental instability). In the revamped liner notes (which include remembrances by all three members), Jason Lowenstein claims that when he joined Sebadoh, Gaffney told him it was going to be a hardcore band, but only a cover of the Minutemen’s “Sickles and Hammers” and Barlow’s uncharacteristic (but still great) “God Told Me” gives that notion any credibility.
Instead, as the record was born out of spontaneous jamming and home-taping sessions prompted and sustained by untold amounts of weed consumption, it seems the band (like its contemporaneous peers in Pennsylvania, Ween) was feeling its way toward reinventing stoner rock for a generation of kids who were through with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Rather than getting high and listening to other people play, the members of Sebadoh get high and jam themselves, and they don’t let a lack of equipment or talent or modesty or the presence or absence of the other band members get in their way of recording it all. Lowenstein’s mumbling, meandering “Smoke a Bowl,” a pretty weak track musically, nonetheless epitomizes III’s spirit, justifying the song’s place at the heart of the record’s original 23-track sequence: “It’s the weed that can make you sing when you’re half asleep.”
Continuing in the same vein as the early tapes, Barlow contributed several more songs in the style that was soon to be dubbed “bedroom folk”—rigorous self-criticism sung over rhythmic acoustic guitar bashing, all distorted by the jury-rigged multi-tracking setup achieved with cheap tape recorders. The understated love songs “Truly Great Thing” and “Kath” are among his best, exploiting the inherent intimacy of his approach, while “Spoiled” takes the same sonic limitations and transforms them into something ghostly and magisterial, summoning a sweeping wave of melancholy that transcends the petty personal problems he seems to obsess over on “Rock Star” and “Renaissance Man” and “The Freed Pig,” his open letter to ex-bandmate J. Mascis. The rest of his contributions break no new ground, and seem like rehashes of material that was fresher on Weed Forestin and The Freed Man.
What makes III unlike any other Sebadoh album (and probably its best) is Eric Gaffney’s work. In the liner notes, Gaffney insists that he was “band leader” at this time, and it certainly sounds as though he was able to assume control of the group when they actually assembled together to play and coax cohesive performances of his songs out of them. “Violet Execution”, “Scars, Four Eyes”, “Holy Picture” and “Supernatural Force” all share a similar jaunty, jangling style (achieved with an open tuning on an acoustic with the G string removed, Gaffney explains) that was superficially accessible; really it sugar-coated the cryptic, troubling sentiments conveyed via the fragmented lyrics: “Agony abounds in dreams so you speak / Legends of torture rock you to sleep”; “Evil pit is never snared / Figured out how to get nowhere”; “Her lilac breath reminds me I’m dead.” These tracks are compulsively listenable even as they grow more disturbing with each listen. And though the word is too often tossed around lightly, his epic “As the World Dies the Eyes of God Grow Bigger” truly feels cathartic, particularly as it unspools into chaos, with Gaffney bleating “Blood on the walls! Blood on the walls!” at the end.
As compelling an album as this is, the reissue nonetheless seems extravagant, and the bonus disc, beyond the Gimme Indie Rock EP, contains detritus few would want to waste their time with, unless you are curious about what changed from demo to full-band studio recording stage on Gaffney’s songs. There are certainly no “unreleased gems”, as the packaging promises. All the bells and whistles merely detract from what had been a sui generis artifact, something that came directly from the heart of stoned post-adolescent confusion with no mediation.
// Notes from the Road
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