Music

Gimme Indie Rock: 12 Essential Sebadoh Songs

Mike Noren

To mark Sebadoh's return from a 14-year hiatus with Defend Yourself, PopMatters offers up a dozen of the defining lo-fi act's best songs.

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)
(III)

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)
(Bakesale)

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)
(Bakesale)

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)
(Weed Forestin)

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)
(Harmacy)

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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