[10 July 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Bubble and Scrape is exactly the kind of album that should be reissued. It is an album that stands to benefit from a second life, and gives us as listeners the chance to hear a recording that we may remember but possibly overlooked the first time around. Like the bulk of the band’s output, it is scatterbrained and charmingly frustrating in its inability to stay in one spot for too long. But, unlike the others, it meshes the squalling static of the band’s past with the melodic drive of its later output, creating an album that is both a high point and a noisy hinge in Sebadoh’s career. But the album needs no historic context to warrant a reissue. The music itself is worthy of another close look.
It’s not that we can’t appreciate deluxe versions of Pavement albums, but people haven’t exactly forgotten about Slanted and Enchanted. Few are walking around wondering, “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain? What’s that?” Those sorts of reissues are a way to give completists chunks of unreleased, and sometimes dubious, material from their favorite band, while simultaneously cashing in on the album’s reputation. Not so with an album like Bubble and Scrape. This new version of the album is an argument for its greatness—and for Sebadoh’s. And it’s an argument that needs to be made.
For some reason—perhaps because they rose out of Dinosaur Jr and came from Boston, the land of the Pixies and Jonathan Richman—Sebadoh always felt like a second-tier band. Not that they were ever shunned by critics or fans, but there was always a feeling that they weren’t as important—whatever that means—as, say, Pavement. But as last year’s reissue of III and now Bubble and Scrape prove, Sebadoh’s discography is just as schizophrenically brilliant, irreverent, and vital as any of their fellow ‘90s indie rock counterparts.
Songs like “Soul and Fire”, “Two Years Two Days”, and “Cliche” show-off Lou Barlow at the height of his powers. His dour-but-infectious pop songs definitely lay the sad bastard, slump-shouldered mumbling on thick, but they match it up with grinding guitar and galvanizing choruses that make the tunes too catchy, fun, and damn loud to dismiss as typical whine rock. And with Barlow’s lovelorn tracks lined up next to the scattered noise bursts and tongue-in-cheek punk shouts of Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein, the album becomes a disjointed and massive indie rock collage. But it is also a collection with a little more clarity—emphasis on little—than III, and a little more adventure than future albums like Bakesale and Harmacy. In short, it’s the best representation of the band’s work.
And it also packs a few surprises not found on the other albums. “Homemade” has just as many tears soaking the cardigan as Barlow’s other songs. But it is a massive dirge of frustration, bigger and longer than most Sebadoh tracks, with guitars lines built not for the rock clubs, but for the arenas. “Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)” takes the best elements from the spotty The Freed Man and fleshes out the band’s early acoustic meanderings into a beautiful ballad. “Sister” marries their screaming goofball punk with their knack for so-obvious-they’re-brilliant melodies. Bubble and Scrape comes together as Barlow and company’s most mature statement, where they keep strong elements from their past but meld them with their ever-evolving feel for straightahead pop.
And this new version of the album does come with its share of bonus material. Most of it is collected off of singles and bonus 7 inches that came out when the album did. But while they have the same scattered, meandering nature the album has, the quality just isn’t there. A couple b-sides from the “Soul and Fire” single, along with an almost uncomfortably close acoustic demo of the song, are the lone highlights. The rest should probably have stayed in the vaults.
But bonus flab aside, hearing this album again has to make you wonder why it isn’t already securely in the upper-echelon indie rock canon. What is it missing? It stands up to time well. “Soul and Fire” is just as heartbreaking and hard rocking now as it was 15 years ago. The album avoids any references that might tie it too much to its own time, and it has a sound that bands are still trying to master today, rarely with the success Sebadoh had.
Like the essential Pavement albums, Bubble and Scrape is not merely an example of great indie rock from the ‘90s. It is an example of great music period. It captures a band that was, and still is, a step above the rest operating at full strength. Does it represent its time well? Sure. But you don’t have to dig your moth-eaten flannel out of the closet to enjoy this stuff. You just have to love great music.
So if the reissue doesn’t launch this album onto the desert island indie rock list, it is sure to reach a few new ears and turn a few new heads. And for those of us who already knew the album, maybe a fresh listen will yield an even greater appreciation. Bubble and Scrape. It’s a good title. Let the blisters form on the surface, peel them away, and see what’s underneath. You might be surprised at how much you’ll find.