Music

Sebadoh: The Freed Man

Decayed, decaying, pleasingly hand-made but inestimably fragile.


Sebadoh

The Freed Man

Label: Domino
First date: 1989-09
US Release Date: 2007-07-24
UK Release Date: 2007-06-25
Amazon
iTunes
this record was intended to be a mess, a stinking garden of delights... we expected a listener to be as open-minded as we believed ourselves to be... true hardcore...

-- Lou Barlow, 2007 (from the liner notes)

"I think everybody should have their own band, and they should get this one big show where everybody in the world plays."

"Yeah, that'd be wicked."

"That'd be the best."

"Everybody in the United States, a whole bunch of hardcore bands, joined together, and we'll have Woodstock.

"Where, you gonna finance it?"

"Yeah, I'd help."

-- Unidentified conversation, "Julienne"

As I write these words I live about ten minutes' drive from where this album was originally recorded, about 20 years ago and in an entirely different world. Eric Gaffney and Lou Barlow were Western Massachusetts boys, having spent the majority of the 1980s drifting around the local hardcore scene, doing time in various small and medium sized bands before coming together in 1986 as Sentridoh. Barlow subsequently rose to medium-grade obscurity during his stint with college-rock stalwarts Dinosaur Jr -- remember when "alternative" was "college"? -- before being kicked out at the beginning of 1989. Thankfully, Barlow and Gaffney had signed a contract with Gerard Cosley and Homestead records as Sebadoh just a week or so before Dinosaur Jr pulled the rug out. Gaffney had at the time been working at a Cumberland Farms gas station.

Gaffney and Barlow were living with their girlfriends on the Smith College campus, in the Friedman dormitory (hence the title). (Smith was then and still is now an all-girls' school, so they kept a low profile.) There were rumors that their housemates were Satanists, which prompted another resident to vacate, leaving an empty room for Gaffney and Barlow to record the four-track master tapes that would become The Freed Man, released in September of 1989. Just a few months later, following Cosley's lead, they were already trying to get out of their ill-conceived contract with Homestead. After the The Freed Man and Freed Weed and Weed Forestin' albums (ingenious repackagings of the same material across different formats to get out of their record contract -- a rock and roll tradition!), Sebadoh found Jason Loewenstein and convened to record their last Homestead album. III followed in short order, and the first of many tumultuous, traumatic line-up changes ensued soon after that -- essentially, business as usual for one of the post-hardcore indie lo-fi scenes' founding institutions.

I think that a knowledge of the geography of Western Massachusetts -- particularly the Pioneer Valely where Sebadoh was born and incubated on these tapes -- is necessary to really understand the appeal. New England is Lovecraft country, home to some of the oldest European settlements in America and heaving under the weight of history, filled with lush verdant greenery and decaying masonry from generations of cyclopean red brick factory buildings abandoned by receded industry. These earliest Sebadoh recordings carry a similar quality -- decayed, decaying, pleasingly hand-made, but inestimably fragile.

There really isn't any better distillation of the "lo-fi" ethos than what can be found on these tapes: this is a moment in history, between when four- and eight-track tape machines were made cheap and plentiful enough for home recording to become a serious craft and the advent of cheap computing and the subsequent democratization of hi-fi recording techniques. These tracks make III sounds like Journey. They may not have been "hardcore" in the sense of playing fast and hard, but they were definitely DIY to the core.

To a degree the songs themselves are almost beside the point, and certainly those looking for the eventual blossoming of Barlow and Gaffney's songwriting skills will have to look further, to III. Most of the material on The Freed Man barely rises above the level of sketch. Certainly, there are highlights: I'm fond of the slacker-Beach Boys harmonics on "Julienne" (sort of an antecedent to Panda Bear's warped mingling of the lo-fi and electronic traditions) and "Crumbs" is moody and splintered in just the right proportions. "Cindy" barely makes it past the one-minute mark, but there's a depth and density that belies the origins.

The constant use of looped samples and found audio adds a surprising bit of color to what would otherwise be extremely grayscale recordings. But that, I think, points to the common thread that makes these recordings so interesting, if not exactly essential: this is the sound of learning to make more with less, making a fetish of trashy aesthetics and turning warped sound into it's own reward. Whether by turning the hiss of a crackling cassette into a moody mid-range, or using clipped dialogue taken from the radio to add psychedelic heft, there are a lot of ideas here that sound daft but are rewarding in execution. Kind of like Sebadoh themselves.

5

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image