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Watchin' Sebadoh grow

By Franklin Soults

MARCH 15, 1999:  Sebadoh's new Sire/Sub Pop album, The Sebadoh, opens with a sustained electric buzz, like the sound of a cheap guitar amp turned up too loud. After an unprecedented three-year hiatus, the loss of drummer Bob Fay, and the departure for the palm trees and freeways of the Other Coast by founding member, one-time Northampton slacker, and long-time Beacon Street resident Lou Barlow, that electric buzz signals Sebadoh's continued allegiance to the small, grease-stained flag of lo-fi. But if the trio, who play the Roxy this Tuesday, have always exemplified this alterna-rock sub-genre, they have been at it so long that it no longer means what it did when one-time Dinosaur Jr. bassist Barlow and his original partner, Eric Gaffney, began their informal side project in the depths of the mid '80s. Then, it was a mission that organized -- or rather, disorganized -- the very idea of the "band." Now, the band have lost the quotation marks and become the mission (as the new album's title proclaims); it's their musically accomplished version of "lo-fi" that gets the ironic punctuation.

For this alone, The Sebadoh has already landed plenty of mixed reviews -- and they occasionally hint at some kind of betrayal. It shows how far back Sebadoh's roots go: these days, sellout sentiment is aired more often in the world of rap than in rock. And that's actually no coincidence: though lo-fi has always been one of the least funky sounds in an alterna-rock continuum increasingly influenced by hip-hop, it has always functioned in that continuum with the same puritanical regulatory force that "keepin' it real" has in rap. Speaking by phone from his newly purchased house in LA, Barlow explains, "The funny thing is, I think hip-hop has been one of the most influential things to us, just sort of almost spiritually. It's been that way from Sebadoh III on, pretty much. Just because of the ferocity of when N.W.A came out, there was the shock of this new blood in hip-hop with a new edginess to it. To me, that stuff was a real influence, in that it just got me to get off my ass and do something that represents me, the way that I feel."

Barlow's equation of rawness with honest self-expression is a close cousin to hip-hop's timeworn equation of badness with authenticity. Just as rappers have long passed off their deviant poses as real-life reportage, Sebadoh and other lo-fi acts have often instinctively claimed the same turf with their tinny guitars, fuzzy home recordings, makeshift compositions, and ramshackle performances. Behind both moves lies the axiomatic principle that the rawness and/or badness is a direct artistic rendition of day-to-day living, whether the one doing the living is a house-bound agoraphobe or a belligerent gangsta-in-training ("You look like a star/But you're really just out on parole," sang Mott the Hoople a hundred years ago). It ensures the democratic thrill of both styles -- the feeling they could come from any street corner or any corner bedroom -- but it also places vexing limitations on the possibilities of growth.

These limitations, or at least their foreshadows, were present even on Sebadoh III, the 1991 album that Barlow claimed was the point he got off his ass and that lo-fi advocates have often celebrated as the group's crowning achievement. Whether you like it or not, there's no question the album embodies the lo-fi ethos in its range and spirit, spewing thin, random, one-take pot shots that were by turns straight-rocking, experimentally discordant, and singer/songwriter tender, with sentiments that ranged from romantic to bitter to ironic to surrealistic to utterly incoherent. Yet even on this hodgepodge it was easy to note a strain between perverse art-rock obscurantist Gaffney and oversensitive underground folk primitive Barlow. Whereas Gaffney seemed to believe, like old-school Sonic Youth, that confusion is sex (or at least sexy), Barlow wanted instead to convey some precise feelings about events in his life, a goal to which he rose most notably in his acerbic kissoff to J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr., "The Freed Pig." As that number's carefully worked ironies demonstrate, and as Barlow himself acknowledges over the phone, "Music is a craft like any art" -- and craft requires artifice and discipline.

It was to prove a difficult realization. Sebadoh III was released on the definitive late-'80s indie label, Homestead, in the very year Nirvana killed the '80s dead with Nevermind. As if on cue, Sebadoh then moved on to the definitive early-'90s indie label, Sub Pop (Nirvana's first stomping ground), for Bubble and Scrape, a 1993 album where the tension between Gaffney and Barlow seemed to have become unresolvable. As Barlow continued to hone his tender and tormented vision -- developing a choked, slightly off-key signature sound that would have been unimaginable if he hadn't been listening to how Kurt Cobain was listening to new-school Sonic Youth -- Gaffney went off the deep end with noise collages that were more willful than ever. Meanwhile, new recruit Jason Loewenstein, who had first joined up for Sebadoh III, stepped forward as a temporary intermediary between the two on unkempt and bent numbers like "Happily Divided" and "Sister." By 1994's Bakesale, Gaffney was gone, new drummer Bob Fay was aboard, and bassist Loewenstein slipped into the role of Barlow's foil.

It's been that way until now. Over the past five years, the group have released only one album -- Harmacy, in 1996 -- while undergoing a world of private turmoil, part of which has to do with trying to maintain the collective ideal that motivated Barlow to form Sebadoh (or for that matter, his other project, the Folk Implosion) in the first place.

"That was one thing I always thought about the band, that there was no leader; I mean, ever, you know? I think that's a really weird way to function . . . [but] I think I've always wanted there to be this situation where the leadership would fall wherever it should. We all fill the void when we see it. That's something that arises just out of a lot of communication and trying to keep on top of what we want ourselves individually and also what is obviously needed."

Barlow sees plenty of good reasons to stick with this unpredictable dynamic. "In the '60s there were bands that had multiple songwriters like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and the Beatles. You had people who had definite styles working together. To me that's a way to make music much more interesting. Through the '70s and the '80s people got into the idea of a band being one guy with a personal vision and a scrappy bunch of guys behind him who are there to present his tough rockin' image. It's sort of the idea of Bruce Springsteen, or Tom Petty, or whatever: the idea of these rough-hewn, Dylan-influenced geniuses who are at the head of this family of people that produce these very homogeneous records. That's not really where we come from. We're much more about the '60s colliding with hardcore and new wave and stuff that really does away with that."

For Barlow, the triumph of The Sebadoh is that it sustains what they're about, even if it's in ways that only he and his bandmates can fully appreciate. "I would say that the songs on this record came out of situations that were far more fucked up, like just personally, than any one we did since Bubble and Scrape, which was out of a really crazy time. You know, the seas were pretty calm through Bakesale and Harmacy. Then we were pretty much hit with hurricane after hurricane. [There was] romantic turmoil, the turmoil of losing one of my best friends -- Bob Fay -- with him leaving the band. Also there was Jason and I going through a lot of intense questioning of each other and ourselves as far as what we wanted to do to continue the band. And all of that stuff is so close to the bone to us, because of the way the band is -- you know . . . there's a lot of emotion and a lot of history invested in it."

It's this very triumph over emotion and history that Barlow sees as the stumbling block to the album's critical acceptance. "It's weird, because to me the guitar stuff sounds a lot rougher than it was before. It just feels like there are a lot more random elements going on in the music. I think maybe just the fact that we're together as a band now makes it all seem like it's supposed to be there. It's because this record sounds like a unified piece, so it suggests this cleanliness or order to it."

That defense might sound like the usual guff from another auteur who can't see the forest for the trees. But give The Sebadoh time to be heard above the band's history and it starts to sound as if Barlow might be right. Maybe there's no way it can compare to Bakesale or even Harmacy in the hearts and eardrums of fans, but it makes sense as a next step. Loewenstein finally moved forward on Bakesale as a worthy counterpoint to Barlow's major talent, but that album mostly works because Barlow momentarily plays Bruce Springsteen, busting out with riffs and tunes packed with unstoppable romantic anguish that you can't meet halfway. Harmacy further refined each writer's craft, but the album kept its underground cred because it split the dynamic between tune guy Barlow and rock guy Loewenstein.

The Sebadoh is where they start talking to each other, Barlow reining in the romance (except on "Tree," on which the sap runs a little too free), Loewenstein working on his melodies as hard as he once worked on his riffs. With their electronic whooshes, their punchy power chords, their crisp vocals, their tough new drummer who can write (Russ Pollard's one credit, "Break Free," stands its ground with the best of the rest), the band have come through to another side of "lo-fi" -- a side where few others will follow now that the alterna-rock doors have swung shut. But just try the handle. It may rattle a bit, but it works just fine.

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