Sebadoh: Bubble and Scrape

You don't have to dig your moth-eaten flannel out of the closet to enjoy this reissue. You just have to love great music.


Bubble and Scrape

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2008-07-08
UK Release Date: 2008-05-05

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.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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