Lou Barlow knows better than most what goes into a successful comeback. A member of Dinosaur Jr. through their ’80s prime — up until J Mascis famously kicked him out in 1989 — Barlow rejoined the group for their unlikely 2005 rebirth. Eight years and three strong Dinosaur albums later, Barlow now hopes to repeat the feat with his other revered ’80s/’90s band, Sebadoh, which this week releases its first new studio album since 1999.
Sebadoh began in the mid-’80s as an outlet for Barlow’s home recordings away from Dinosaur Jr., with help from early collaborator Eric Gaffney. The duo’s output — heard on 1989’s The Freed Man and 1990’s Weed Forestin — was a collage of sound experiments, throwaway jokes, and rough folk and pop songs that set the stage for numerous “lo-fi” musicians who followed. Jason Loewenstein joined Sebadoh in 1989, creating the three-person line-up of what many fans consider the band’s “classic” era. Barlow, Gaffney, and Loewenstein would swap instruments and take turns on the mic, Barlow providing a tuneful sensitivity while the others brought a volatile noise/punk streak. The mix made for some of the era’s most memorably chaotic recordings, most notably III (1991) — arguably Sebadoh’s masterpiece — and Bubble & Scrape (1993).
Gaffney left Sebadoh in 1993, and the group that made 1994’s Bakesale and 1996’s Harmacy was a tidier, more focused unit. With new drummer Bob Fay, this streamlined version of Sebadoh took Barlow’s catchiest rock songs to their widest audiences, even finding MTV and radio play with “Rebound”. Around the same time, Barlow gained further exposure with the Folk Implosion, whose hit soundtrack to the 1995 film Kids incorporated sleeker, more electronic elements. Similar touches would appear on the next, and seemingly final, Sebadoh album, 1999’s The Sebadoh.
After The Sebadoh, the group splintered off. Barlow put out albums under his own name and with the New Folk Implosion, and eventually with the reunited Dinosaur Jr. Loewenstein released solo material and worked with the Fiery Furnaces. With a re-formed line-up now consisting of Barlow, Loewenstein, and drummer Bob D’Amico, Sebadoh is poised to start another new chapter with the recent release of Defend Yourself. To celebrate the occasion, PopMatters takes a career-spanning look at 12 essential tracks from Sebadoh’s diverse back catalog.
12. “Two Years Two Days” (1993)
(Bubble & Scrape)
Though he was often grouped with indie rock contemporaries Stephen Malkmus and Robert Pollard, Barlow was always a different breed of songwriter. Where Malkmus and Pollard would keep listeners at a distance with cryptic, abstract lyrics, Barlow took the opposite course, digging into his own personal life with an almost uncomfortable openness. “Two Years Two Days”, from 1993’s Bubble & Scrape, grabs your attention with its jagged guitar lines, but it’s Barlow’s plainspoken account of a fraying relationship that sticks with you.
11. “Limb by Limb” (1991)
Though Barlow was always the band’s most celebrated songwriter, Sebadoh functioned best when his bandmates pulled the group in different directions. Over the course of 1991’s III, Loewenstein threw in some sludgy change-ups, and Gaffney punctuated the set with aggressive rock songs and out-of-the-blue outbursts. Sequenced behind some of the album’s softest ballads, Gaffney’s “Limb by Limb” brings a hard-charging recklessness (“I’m moving on, plowing through”) that makes for a perfect counterbalance to Barlow’s hung-up introspection.
10. “Magnet’s Coil” (1994)
An early highlight of 1994’s Bakesale, “Magnet’s Coil” cuts right to the chase with Barlow’s trademark mix of nervous energy (“I’ve got to find a way to loosen up”) and relationship insecurity (“Nobody wants another mirror on their fears / I guess that’s all you are to me”). It’s in many ways a signature track of Sebadoh’s middle period — less wildly unstable than before, but still with plenty of rough edges and raw nerves.
9. “Not Too Amused” (1994)
By Bakesale, Gaffney had left the band and Loewenstein had stepped up to take a greater share of the songwriting. “Not Too Amused” is arguably his finest moment, a bitter, slow-building guitar track that seemed to sharpen his focus and solidify his place as co-frontman of the group.
8. “Gate to Hell” (1990)
The earliest Sebadoh recordings aimed for a kind of damaged beauty, where Barlow’s prettiest songs would bump up against screeches, background noise, and found sounds. But Sebadoh played it straight with the hushed folk of “Gate to Hell”, a Weed Forestin highlight that suggests Barlow as a link between classic Nick Drake (whose “Pink Moon” Sebadoh would raucously cover) and mid-’90s Elliott Smith.
7. “Ocean” (1996)
If the early Sebadoh albums were characterized by homemade intimacy and wild mood swings, the later ones are best remembered for Barlow’s tightly wound pop songs. “Ocean”, a single from 1996’s Harmacy, bobs along on one of the group’s most hummable melodies, delivering a break-up speech with the feel of a nursery rhyme: “I hesitate to say that you’re a liar / I never tell the truth myself / But I tried to chase you down and I got tired / So I’m leaving you to you or someone else”.
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6. “As the World Dies, the Eyes of God Grow Bigger” (1991)
No track demonstrates the violent chaos Gaffney brought to the group quite like “As the World Dies, the Eyes of God Grow Bigger”, III‘s epic mess of a finale. In alternating phrases of gliding folk-rock and crashing screaming fits, the song tells a family history of drug damage, descent into madness, and bloody murder, growing more and more unhinged as it goes along.
5. “Rebound” (1994)
A minor alternative radio hit, Bakesale‘s “Rebound” reached Sebadoh’s widest audience to date, and rightfully so. The track shows Barlow doing what he does best, packing complex emotional baggage into two minutes of bounding, restless energy. Picking up after the end of a relationship, Barlow seems both giddy with thoughts of someone new and painfully aware of how little he has to offer: “I’m no one you can trust / All little-boy lonely and curious lust”.
4. “Gimme Indie Rock” (1991)
(Rockin’ the Forest)
Sebadoh’s classic albums earned them a place at the forefront of 1990s independent rock, so it’s fitting that they put out — literally — the defining track of the genre. The 1991 7″ “Gimme Indie Rock”, available on 1992’s Rockin’ the Forest EP, is a tossed-off joke presented as a scene’s mission statement, or maybe vice versa. Over sludgy guitars and jerky tempo changes, Barlow delivers both an origin story (hardcore kids discover weed, play their music slower) and an instructional guide (the definitive list of groups to imitate) for a “new generation of electric white-boy blues”.
3. “Soul and Fire” (1993)
(Bubble & Scrape)
Arguably Barlow’s best-loved ballad, “Soul and Fire” leads off Bubble & Scrape with a walk-through of standard relationship stages — from “the thrill of discovery”, through “cruel, cruel change”, and eventually “the pain of rejection”. Ultimately concluding that “I think our love is coming to an end”, “Soul and Fire” set the bar for the softly devastating break-up songs that would become a Sebadoh staple.
2. “The Freed Pig” (1991)
“The Freed Pig” is Barlow’s famously bitter response to his dismissal from Dinosaur Jr., but the track amounts to much more than dirty laundry and sour grapes. Kicking off III, “The Freed Pig” brought out a new side of Sebadoh, reworking Barlow’s homespun songwriting into a catchy, knotted-up pop package. There are swipes at J Mascis, who would seem to be the “pig” in the title, but Barlow takes most of blame himself. Running down his own childishness and negativity, Barlow makes a case for Mascis being better off without him: “Now you will be free, with no sick people tugging on your sleeve / Your big head has that more room to grow”.
1. “Brand New Love” (1990/1992)
(Weed Forestin and Sebadoh vs. Helmet)
On the surface, it seemed Barlow was able to find some fresh-start optimism for “Brand New Love”: “Follow what you feel / You alone decide what’s real / Anyone could be a brand new love”. But with a closer listen, it’s apparent Barlow is singing from the point of view of the one being left behind: “You won’t be the first / Your twisted change is normal, gossip dirt.” An epic love song nonetheless, “Brand New Love” is equally moving as a stripped-down ballad on Weed Forestin or in amped-up rock mode on 1992’s Sebadoh vs. Helmet and Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock.