Sebadoh Albums From Worst To Best
Sebadoh were something of the “Beautiful Losers” of the ’90s indie scene. Lou Barlow emerged from Northamption hardcore act Deep Wound, and later Dinosaur Jr., having famously been acrimoniously dismissed from the latter. He’d certainly borrow from J Mascis’s pop instincts, as well as Deep Wound’s wanton aggression, throughout Sebadoh’s existence, while perfecting the art of the sensitive yet self-deprecating indie ballad.
Eric Gaffney co-founded the band with Barlow, and the pair collaborated on The Freed Man and Weed Forestin, which were inchoate versions of what Sebadoh would evolve into. Gaffney recruited Jason Lowenstein, and they cohered into a full-fledged band, although the trio often swapped instruments early on, with no clear-cut frontperson.
The trio created three great indie rock albums in III, Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock, and Bubble And Scrape. Around this time, Gaffney was unceremoniously let go from the band, replaced by their longtime friend Bob Fay on drums. The move enabled the band to create their most consistent album to date, 1994’s Bakesale. It moved them into the category of “ones to watch,” as the industry was still hungry for more Nirvana and R.E.M. style breakthroughs.
Most who were in their early teens or younger in the ’90s remember Barlow from his breakthrough side project with John Davis, Folk Implosion, and their ubiquitous 1995 hit “Natural One,” culled from the Kids soundtrack, which was a ubiquitous clip on MTV’s Buzz Bin at the time. It ultimately seemed to serve as an albatross for Sebadoh unfortunately, as the stakes were high for 1996’s Harmacy, and its sales were underwhelming despite a large marketing budget.
1999’s The Sebadoh found Russ Pollard assuming the drummer mantle from Bob Fay, and he indeed raised the stakes of the band’s sound. They were tighter than ever throughout The Sebadoh, with some great tracks to match. Unfortunately their audience, particularly in the U.S., dwindled, and the band went on an extended hiatus following the album’s tour, with Barlow often saying in interviews thereafter, “We’ll come back when the people want us back.”
They reunited a few times in the ’00s, once as a duo with just Lowenstein and Barlow, and later as a trio with Gaffney joining the mix, primarily as a means to promote reissues of III and Bubble & Scrape. The reunions were enjoyable, but for those who’d been there the first time around, something was definitely missing.
The band again reconvened a few years ago, this time with longtime Lowenstein and Fiery Furnaces drummer Bob D’Amicio in tow. Sebadoh sounded utterly revitalized while playing a nice cross section of their formidable back catalog, and even decided to record some new material, releasing the Secret EP, available only at shows and via download on Bandcamp. The material on this EP was rather amazingly commensurate with some of the band’s finest moments.
They’ve been holed up in the studio since working on a new album due for release later this year. Barlow has claimed in interviews that it harks to classic Sebadoh sounds, which was also the case on the EP. It provides hope that a new generation of music fans will be exposed to one of the truly seminal bands of the ’90s. It also provides us an apt moment to look back and discuss their catalog. So let’s get to it.
8. The Freed Man (1989)
Barlow was still playing in Dinosaur Jr. when he recorded this album, with the assistance of Gaffney, and much if it is composed of half-baked (no pun intended), ill-conceived ideas. “Soul Mate” is a tune Barlow would resurrect frequently for Sebadoh live shows, in a more fleshed-out form, and this version illustrates what was on Barlow’s mind at the time — sexual confusion, angst, and a sort of agoraphobia. And “Punch In The Nose” illustrates Barlow’s rather underrated sense of a humor, as the track, which would later become a carousing sing-along anthem at Sebadoh shows, is accentuated by a somber trumpet, as he implores, “I’m not looking for a punch in the nose.”
7. Weed Forestin (1990)
Inchoate sketches of songs, much in the vein of The Freed Man, dominate here. Yet brilliance occasionally shines through, as on the devastating first version of “Brand New Love,” later reprised in epic rock form on Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock. Still other tracks are as puerile as Ween, such as “Three Times a Day,” in which Barlow professes his ambivalence toward masturbation, and the excruciatingly awkward “Sexual Confusion,” which has a title that does it full justice. Sprightly numbers such as “It’s So Hard to Fall in Love” exhibit Barlow's lyrical gifts, auguring future folk-pop dalliances to come.
As Thurston Moore told me in a 2009 interview for The Big Takeover, “When Lou started playing that sort of music, he singlehandedly created what we called lo-fi.” And for better or worse, it’s in its nascent stages here and on The Freed Man, primed to burst and bloom in myriad directions.
6. The Sebadoh (1999)
Long a dark spot on the band’s discography, and the record that ostensibly inspired the act to break up for a long stretch, The Sebadoh doesn’t really get its due. It was the first album with Pollard behind the drum kit, which led to a much more visceral band dynamic, as he instinctively locked into Lowenstein’s bass notes. The groove-driven “Flame” is one of the more spirited tracks in Barlow’s entire oeuvre, as he desperately begs, “I don’t wanna ride flame,” as if it’s a one way ticket to hell. The Lowenstein sung “It’s All You” kicks off the album with a brilliant clarion guitar riff worthy of Nirvana.
The record loses some speed on the turgid “Tree,” which Barlow wrote for his sister’s wedding, and probably would’ve been better served to have left it behind at the reception. But highlights abound — “Love Is Stronger,” while a textbook Barlow weeper, is rescued by his wittily self-aware lyrics and an uncannily gorgeous chorus. Even “Colorblind” stretched the confines of the band’s sound ever so slightly, delving into the topic of racial prejudice on an eminently catchy guitar driven track that has a passing resemblance to early-’80s L.A. punk act X. The band always felt as though they’d gotten a raw deal on its reviews and commercial reception, so perhaps it’s time for a reevaluation? Time has treated this album very, very well.
5. Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock (1992)
I remember watching a bootleg VHS of Sebadoh just before Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock was released, and the show opened with three songs from Gaffney. As absurd as that sounds now, Gaffney to that point seemed to be just as integral a part of the band’s songwriting as Barlow, and even bigger a factor than Lowenstein, thanks in large part to his stunning contributions to III.
On Smash Your Head, however, Gaffney only contributed three songs, and they paled in comparison to Barlow’s four numbers, including the show-stopping “Brand New Love.” The latter, reconfigured into a full-on rock song from its previous gossamer incarnation on Weed Forestin, is devastating here. “Vampire” features some of the most brutal lyrics Barlow’s ever written, matching the bruised clamor of instrumentation like a glove. As he catatonically croons, “I ask a simple question when I know the answer right/ I ask me if I love her as I tell her it's all right/ But nothing in my life would fit, I turned into an idiot vampire, draining her desire.” It’s pure, unmitigated self-loathing, illustrating the black heart at the core of this album.
The Barlow covers are equally harrowing. His tremulous vocals on “Everybody’s Been Burned” transform the original Byrds number into a pitch-black dirge, while Nick Drake’s delicate “Pink Moon” is mutilated into a whiplash thrash number. Jason Lowenstein contributes two songs, while Bob Fay contributes one, but this was the album in which Barlow became Sebadoh’s focal point — which would persist even though Lowenstein would essentially assume the co-frontman mantle circa Bakesale.
4. Bakesale (1994)
Certainly the most consistent Sebadoh album, Bakesale opens with a one-two-three salvo as great as any indie record of the mid-’90s with “License To Confuse,” “Careful,” and “Magnet’s Coil,” all fist-pumping, adrenalized rockers. But this is just part of the story on this multifarious album, fortunately.
On Bubble & Scrape, Barlow’s somber tracks were concerned with winning over the woman of his dreams. Bakesale dwells on the realities after the fact — the lack of communication, the stilted conversations ... the work, essentially. On “Not A Friend,” he croons, “I don’t need obligations to our crippled conversations/ I’d rather tell you something you should know/ I’m not a friend so just let me know.” While on “Skull,” Barlow seeks escape, begging a potential one-night stand to, ”Gently take my skull for a ride.” But as on “Rebound,” this is nothing but a quixotic fantasy, as he realizes he’s nothing but a “sad and sloppy mess looking for approval.” He spills his guts on closing track “Together Or Alone,” proclaiming over a woozy minor-key melody, “And this confusion wears me down/ Together or alone/ I’m not afraid of being alone.” His defeated tone and the song’s devastatingly downcast outro suggest otherwise.
3. Harmacy (1996)
Sub Pop apparently hoped Harmacy would be Sebadoh's commercial breakthrough, perhaps due to the relative success of Bakesale and the colossal success of Folk Implosion’s “Natural One,” which became a bonafide modern rock hit in 1995 and was all over MTV, with Barlow inexplicably discarding his trademark spectacles. The record unfortunately didn’t live up to its sales expectations, a shame because it was a sensational album, perhaps the greatest balance of stellar songwriting and mainstream accessibility in the band’s canon. The record often tackles larger issues than the boy/girl dynamics Sebadoh were often groove-locked into.
Opening track “On Fire” finds Barlow examining his relationships with bandmates and how he’s wronged them, contrite for his own perfidy. “Too Pure” questions how substance abuse is affecting his relationships, wondering, “Is there a reason for this distance?/ More than the drugs that float my day,” as a cello saws away icily; while “Beauty Of The Ride” is a taut, breakneck anthem rife with lyrical allusions to vicissitudes of life on the road. “Prince-S” finds Lowenstein dipping his toe into Barlow-esque ballad territory, and it succeeds spectacularly, as he plays with the title’s double entendre, “You’re a princess in distress.” And the aching, elegiac “Willing To Wait” finds the band at a shimmering peak, one for which expectations were set a bit too high, as Sub Pop invested a small fortune promoting the track, which hardly registered on MTV and modern-rock radio.
Sadly, the band’s perception of the album seems colored by both its commercial shortcomings and the fact that they dismissed drummer Bob Fay after its touring commenced. But in the overall context of Sebadoh’s discography, it’s a high point, and perhaps worth a re-evaluation by the band themselves after all these years. There are a few execrable tracks, particularly at the end of the record (the instrumental “Weed Against Speed” and Fay’s grand goof “I Smell a Rat” could’ve been excised), but the highs easily outstrip the lows.
2. Sebadoh III (1991)
Considering how haphazardly it veers between styles, III is a curiously cohesive album, and perhaps the most epochal in the band’s catalog. It synthesized Barlow’s predilection for lo-fi pop with bizarre, miasmatic tangents from Gaffney. Lowenstein’s songs were at times forgettable, but they provided a nice middle-ground between the polar extremes of Barlow and Gaffney.
They were something of a three-headed hydra, but for whatever reason, it just clicked, forming a sort of divine alchemy in its disparateness. Barlow really hits the mark on threadbare numbers such as “Kath” and “Total Peace,” which foreshadow his later, more successful dalliances with confessional songwriting, along with the anthemic “Freed Pig,” his kiss-off to J Masis following his acrimonious dismissal from Dinosaur Jr. And the frayed acoustic ballad “Spoiled” will live in perpetuity as the exit music for Larry Clark’s film Kids.
It’s hard to find a song on III, with the possible exception of “Spoiled” or “The Freed Pig,” that might make a fan’s top 10 list, but there’s something so magical about what the trio nailed here — it’s as indispensable an artifact of ’90s indie rock as Slanted And Enchanted or Bee Thousand.
1. Bubble & Scrape (1993)
There was an article in the long-defunct British music magazine Select in the mid-’90s on “The Best Albums For Having a Nervous Breakdown While Listening.” A Joy Division record obviously made the cut, as did R.E.M.’s Fables Of The Reconstruction, Nirvana’s In Utero, Radiohead’s The Bends, and a few others. Aside from the fact that these were perhaps my personal favorite albums at the time, it also jumped out at me that Bubble & Scrape was lamentably absent from the list. No Sebadoh record past or present has conveyed unbearable emotional tumult as scathingly as Bubble & Scrape.
Barlow achieves an arresting pinnacle on the cataclysmic devastation of “Soul And Fire,” as he confesses, with surprisingly dignified resignation, “I know our love is coming to an end.” This opening number rapidly segues into “2 Years, 2 Days,” in which he questions the lover he’d signed off on emotionally and how she might feel in a couple years or couple days if he convinced her to come back, “Holding on but trapping you inside,” over lacerating slashes of electric guitar. Gaffney’s songs such as “Telecosmic Alchemy” and “Fantastic Disaster” provide a certain degree of levity, but it isn’t needed. And Lowenstein’s tunes, while hewing closer to Barlow’s in mood, still pale in comparison.
This record flat-out belongs to Barlow, from the torque-driven “Sacred Attention” to the unsurpassably sad “Think (Let Tomorrow Bee),” featuring one of Barlow’s finest lyrics; “Pushing every answer, when there isn’t any question.” Surely Barlow realized by then that the only questions worth asking were the ones without answers.