Sebadoh: III

For a brief shining moment this was the sound of stoner rock.



Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2006-07-06
UK Release Date: Available as import

Originally formed as a vent for Lou Barlow’s frustrations built up as a member of Dinosaur and an outlet for his and Eric Gaffney’s outré sound experiements, Sebadoh is now inseparable from our retrospective notion of 1990s indie rock, a genre label it helped turn into a caricature even while giving it wider currency with the song “Gimme Indie Rock” (included as part of this reissue’s disc of bonus tracks, along with the rest of the EP on which it originally appeared). I haven’t done any actual philological work on this, but memory tells me that in the late 1980s, the preferred nomenclature for music that wasn’t on pop or classic-rock radio and wasn’t punk or hardcore was “college rock” or “underground music”. Indie rock seems like it was only applied after the fact, after bands that once could be found only on independent labels or independent record stores started to sign to major labels -- Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, R.E.M. It didn’t seem like a term you’d ever apply to your own band.

Now the phrase indie rock seems to crystallize everything that was phony about the underground rock scene as it was just beginning to flourish in the early 1990s: the posturing for credibility, the contempt for production values, the self-satisfied irony, the studied indifference, the painful self-consciousness. Sebadoh’s song sends all of that up without having to explicitly mention any of it. You certainly don’t get the impression that they thought they belonged to that genre. Though Sebadoh would become known primarily for purveying its own special brand of proto-emo perfect for bespectacled liberal arts majors on later albums, in 1991 they were barely known outside of the coterie of record-store denizens who circulated the primitive cassettes the band made in the fashion of Daniel Johnston (shameless confession minus mental instability). In the revamped liner notes (which include remembrances by all three members), Jason Lowenstein claims that when he joined Sebadoh, Gaffney told him it was going to be a hardcore band, but only a cover of the Minutemen’s “Sickles and Hammers” and Barlow’s uncharacteristic (but still great) “God Told Me” gives that notion any credibility.

Instead, as the record was born out of spontaneous jamming and home-taping sessions prompted and sustained by untold amounts of weed consumption, it seems the band (like its contemporaneous peers in Pennsylvania, Ween) was feeling its way toward reinventing stoner rock for a generation of kids who were through with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Rather than getting high and listening to other people play, the members of Sebadoh get high and jam themselves, and they don’t let a lack of equipment or talent or modesty or the presence or absence of the other band members get in their way of recording it all. Lowenstein’s mumbling, meandering “Smoke a Bowl,” a pretty weak track musically, nonetheless epitomizes III’s spirit, justifying the song’s place at the heart of the record’s original 23-track sequence: “It’s the weed that can make you sing when you’re half asleep.”

Continuing in the same vein as the early tapes, Barlow contributed several more songs in the style that was soon to be dubbed “bedroom folk” -- rigorous self-criticism sung over rhythmic acoustic guitar bashing, all distorted by the jury-rigged multi-tracking setup achieved with cheap tape recorders. The understated love songs “Truly Great Thing” and “Kath” are among his best, exploiting the inherent intimacy of his approach, while “Spoiled” takes the same sonic limitations and transforms them into something ghostly and magisterial, summoning a sweeping wave of melancholy that transcends the petty personal problems he seems to obsess over on “Rock Star” and “Renaissance Man” and “The Freed Pig,” his open letter to ex-bandmate J. Mascis. The rest of his contributions break no new ground, and seem like rehashes of material that was fresher on Weed Forestin and The Freed Man.

What makes III unlike any other Sebadoh album (and probably its best) is Eric Gaffney’s work. In the liner notes, Gaffney insists that he was “band leader” at this time, and it certainly sounds as though he was able to assume control of the group when they actually assembled together to play and coax cohesive performances of his songs out of them. “Violet Execution”, “Scars, Four Eyes”, “Holy Picture” and “Supernatural Force” all share a similar jaunty, jangling style (achieved with an open tuning on an acoustic with the G string removed, Gaffney explains) that was superficially accessible; really it sugar-coated the cryptic, troubling sentiments conveyed via the fragmented lyrics: “Agony abounds in dreams so you speak / Legends of torture rock you to sleep”; “Evil pit is never snared / Figured out how to get nowhere”; “Her lilac breath reminds me I’m dead.” These tracks are compulsively listenable even as they grow more disturbing with each listen. And though the word is too often tossed around lightly, his epic “As the World Dies the Eyes of God Grow Bigger” truly feels cathartic, particularly as it unspools into chaos, with Gaffney bleating “Blood on the walls! Blood on the walls!” at the end.

As compelling an album as this is, the reissue nonetheless seems extravagant, and the bonus disc, beyond the Gimme Indie Rock EP, contains detritus few would want to waste their time with, unless you are curious about what changed from demo to full-band studio recording stage on Gaffney's songs. There are certainly no "unreleased gems", as the packaging promises. All the bells and whistles merely detract from what had been a sui generis artifact, something that came directly from the heart of stoned post-adolescent confusion with no mediation.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

Trey Anastasio sings the new "Everything's Right" with the ladies harmonizing behind him to generate both an uplifting anthem of personal empowerment and a melodic jam vehicle that brings the entire audience into a collective groove of spirit family unity.

It's All Hallows Eve in the City of Angels, and the historic Wiltern Theater is the place to be as guitarist Trey Anastasio leads his solo band into town for a celebratory performance. The show isn't drawing fans from all over the country as when Anastasio's primary band Phish played Halloween in Las Vegas last year, where the promise of a musical costume set saw the band deliver a truly transcendent performance for the ages with David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. But this show from the Trey Anastasio Band is still the top Halloween ticket in California, drawing in fans from across the state for what remains a relatively rare visit from a musical hero whom many fans consider to possess his angelic aura.

Keep reading... Show less

"I'm proud of coming in second for my high school's alumnus of the year award to Mitt Romney. I would've liked to have beaten him, but he has lost enough for a lifetime."

So what the living heck is the gang up to now? Well, they won't tell us, but boy is it exciting.

You see, for Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott, each new phase of their career is marked by some sort of wonderful thing. Their first two albums together under the band name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., gained a small but respectable cult following, but with 2015's self-titled re-envisioning, the guys streamlined their pop sensibilities into something that required a bigger studio budget, resulting in the biggest hit of their career with the song "Gone". They even placed in PopMatters Best Pop Album ranking for that year, which is no small feat.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.