Sebadoh: Defend Yourself

Photo by Jens Nordstrom

The more things stay the same, the more they've changed for Sebadoh, which has come up with its most consistent, coherent work yet on Defend Yourself.


Defend Yourself

US Release: 2013-09-17
UK Release: 2013-09-16
Label: Joyful Noise

Of all the comebacks recently mounted by fondly remembered '90s underground faves, Sebadoh's might seem like one of the more difficult propositions. That's not because the group doesn't have the chops, but because the bleeding-heart-on-sleeve sentiments expressed in Lou Barlow's trademark songs seem so tied to a specific time and stage of one's life when perceived slights and psychic wounds could feel so fresh and raw. In other words, how could a band whose music so viscerally captured what it felt like to be brokenhearted in your twenties do the same when they're in their forties and know better than that? And if it's hard enough for a listener to go back through the Sebadoh catalog and hear insecure, lovesick ditties like "Two Years Two Days" and "Willing to Wait" without a slight bit of cringing for identifying with them way back when, how would Barlow approach his exceedingly personal and eviscerating songwriting when he's older and hopefully wiser, with almost a decade-and-a-half of distance from the last Sebadoh album?

The more things stay the same, the more they've changed for Barlow and band co-founder Jason Loewenstein on their latest, Defend Yourself, which comes 14 years after their last full-length, 1999's The Sebadoh. So while the subject matter of Barlow's contributions on Defend Yourself are still about missed connections and break-ups, this batch of songs comes after the dissolution of his 25-year marriage, which certainly changes the tenor and context of the lyrics. It's telling, then, that some of Barlow's first lines on the album are "Things have changed / No longer need to be with you / I'm still the same / And if it's leaving I must do, to be true / I will." Even if these sentiments from "I Will" evoke, at least on paper, the heartbreak of his earlier songs, Barlow's insight and how he delivers it reveal a kind of recognition and understanding that shows how much he's grown, matched by the natural flow of the music that helps him avoid indulging in the bitter agitation or the forlorn introspection that he's been known for. Even more piercingly aware is the appropriately cathartic indie-folk diary entry "Let It Out", on which Barlow comes to terms with his situation rather than fight it, singing "I knew how far and fast we might fall / Still I'm holding on to whatever turns me on / The promise of a new familiar way" with a well-earned sense of knowing that doesn't get mired in crippling self-doubt and frustration as his songwriting persona often had in the past.

In short, Defend Yourself is less a comeback to the way things were for Sebadoh than a reinvention, a rebirth. If Sebadoh's revival has a precedent, it would actually be Barlow's other gig Dinosaur Jr., in that both bands have come up with new material that's shockingly vital, recalling what made 'em great in the first place without retracing earlier steps or going through the motions. Sebadoh's new familiar way, to riff off Barlow's own words, is reflected in the approach the group took to making the album, tapping its DIY roots and self-producing Defend Yourself on a shoestring budget, yet somehow coming up with as full and rich a sound as it ever has. Barlow tracks like "I Will" and punk-pop romper "Love You Here" have muscular melodies that probably would've broken Sebadoh into the mainstream as they should've when they were post-grunge next big things. The fruits of this new approach are even more evident on Loewenstein's offerings, like on the buzzy "Beat" and the twang punk of "Can't Depend", which still bound and radiate with his eccentric energy, just with a more pronounced sense of structure than his tracks possessed before. And to top it all off, the Barlow-led numbers and the Loewenstein-penned ones have never sounded more complementary -- notice, especially, how Loewenstein's "Inquiries" and Barlow's "State of Mine" go back-to-back and hand-in-hand with each other by playing to each songwriter's strengths, the former an off-kilter experimental punk rave-up and the latter a straight-up indie charmer.

All in all, you could say that this more settled perspective is channeled into a mature album that's more fleshed out from beginning to end than previous Sebadoh outings, with a noticeably higher level of complexity whether you're talking about the grown-up themes Barlow and Loewenstein tackle or the greater confidence and consistency in Sebadoh's eclectic indie sound. But in the case of Defend Yourself, more mature doesn't mean Sebadoh's gone adult alternative or dad-rock on you -- you certainly wouldn't get that impression from the imposing guitar-and-bass of the title track or the headlong indie-punkabilly of "Oxygen", as the music still bristles and crackles in the right places. Take "State of Mine" as the best example of Sebadoh's new state of mind, as it circles with the energy of mosh-ready punk-pop piece at the same time it manages to show how Barlow has grown older gracefully, pondering, "To let the children grow / To feel it themselves / To hurt and grow / It's the hardest thing I've ever done and I haven't done it yet." Likewise, Loewenstein digs deeper in his own way, dealing with relationships in a more existential fashion on what might be his most streamlined song yet, "Final Days", where he growls, "Making everything so complex / Absence of reason / Intrigued by mystery / Ignored by history."

That Sebadoh could come up with an album that's as engaging as its work from its heyday speaks to how Barlow and Loewenstein haven't just persevered, but have thrived from going though what they've gone through. Even more impressive is that Defend Yourself might just be Sebadoh's most consistent and coherent effort yet, suggesting that they've dealt with anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty by getting their act together instead of tearing down everything -- and everyone -- around them like before. Perhaps that's the promise of a new familiar way that Sebadoh makes good on with Defend Yourself both thematically and musically, finding something to build on at last, after all the years.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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