From The Vault: Sebadoh

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For a overview of From The Vault‘s premise as well as a look back at classic Strokes releases, make sure to check out the first installment of the series with Daniel Kirschenbaum here. Now on to a look at a reissued classic.

Sebadoh’s Bakesale (Reissue)
There’s no good reason why Sebadoh stayed off my radar until recently. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that I can’t recall anyone speaking about them with any kind of urgency. When it comes to nineties indie rock, someone (usually my brother) will lay into me with an impassioned screed about how I must listen to (insert moderately known band and their most noteworthy album here). It’s an effective technique, and it’s yielded a lot of gold for me. I don’t know that I would have given Archers of Loaf’s Icky Mettle or the Wrens’ Secaucus a second look without my brother’s melodramatic insistence.

But yeah, not a peep on Sebadoh. I’d heard Harmacy once or twice and liked it, and my interest was slightly piqued when I went to the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2008 and Bubble and Scrape was chosen as one of the sacred albums that must be played cover to cover, alongside Mission of Burma’s Vs. and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Not bad company, though I had been misremembering Bakesale as the album that Sebadoh were asked to play, which should give you some idea about my memory’s diligence and integrity regarding Sebadoh.

I could also place a little of the blame at the feet of Michael Azerrad, whose book Our Band Could Be Your Life is considered the definitive chronicle of independent rock bands of the 1980s. Azerrad devotes a chapter to Dinosaur Jr. which, aside from explaining the band’s importance, establishes frontman J. Mascis as a particularly unkind and unforgiving bandleader, capable of making bassist and Sebadoh frontman Lou Barlow feel like an ineffectual piece of shit for no good reason. By chapter’s end, Barlow most certainly has the reader’s sympathy, but the story does little to set the guy up as an effective and compelling lead singer.

But here I am, having spent the better part of last week listening to the newly reissued edition of Bakesale. I may not be ready to tell you to burn all of your other records, flip cars, violently claw at the very fabric of society, whatever you must do to get your hands on this album, but I will say it’s a superb indie rock record. In fact, I’d say spend the money to get the reissue, because this is one album where the demos and b-sides are not just fitfully enjoyable reissue padding; they’re illuminative.

Most of the songs on Bakesale play perfectly as punchy, catchy, lo-fi indie-rock tunes, but it’s telling that the acoustic demo versions of the same songs play just as well and, in some cases, better than their more urgent counterparts. The four-track recordings of “Not a Friend” and “Mystery Men,” as well as the acoustic versions of “Magnet’s Coil” and “Rebound,” not only highlight the sharpness of Sebadoh’s pop songwriting abilities, but heighten the poignancy that the original heavy versions inadvertently mask.

Again, this is mid-nineties, indie-rock music; the subject matter is never going to turn particularly grave. It’s decently-to-well-educated dudes turning their social and relationship issues into songs. Barlow, in particular, lives up to the bashful portrayal in Azerrad’s book with a series of songs that paint him as a nervous wreck. “License to Confuse” opens Bakesale with a fiery, repeating riff that Barlow chases down with one embarrassing admission of anxiety after another (“I’m not attractive today/I’m not a sight for sore eyes/I’m not an Adam or Eve/I’m just a nervous young thing”). Bassist Jason Loewenstein, who took on a much heavier songwriting role for Bakesale after drummer Eric Gaffney’s departure, follows “License to Confuse” with the equally tense rocker “Careful” (“It’s never time to show and prove…Never know what’s right to do”). Without missing a beat, Barlow jumps back in with “Magnet’s Coil”, wherein he once again voices his angst in his rushed yet reserved everyman’s voice.

The lyrics continue on in this pattern; life sucks, girlfriend sucks, maybe I could change it if I weren’t so goddamn hopeless. It’s a common theme in indie rock, but Bakesale succeeds in spite of saying nothing particularly new for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s not affected: Barlow and Loewenstein are every bit the sad sacks they present themselves to be. Spirited as the music is, both songwriters imbue their vocal performances with utterly convincing resignation. If the whole thing is an act, and Sebadoh were just taking advantage of a particularly angsty time in popular rock music, then kudos anyway for being so damn persuasive about it.

The second reason it works so well- and it’s the more important reason- is the songwriting. Sebadoh realize that their music need not be a drag just because they are in their respective personal lives. If you were to ignore the lyrics, you’d never sense how much moping is actually going on Bakesale. “License to Confuse”, “Magnet’s Coil”, “Not a Friend”, “Skull”, “Rebound”- these songs are all built around tremendously infectious hooks, and they hit at a relentless rate. And the other end of Bakesale — the side that skews closer to the weirder noise experiments the band was partially known for prior to Gaffney leaving the band — is loaded up with ill-tempered ballads and art-damaged rockers that contain their own sort of bruised beauty. “Not Too Amused” slowly shuffles along through misanthropic sentiments and screwy guitar-picking to a sad, half-hearted catharsis. “Give Up” punctures its catchy verses and choruses with brutish power chord blows. Through it all, Loewenstein meets Barlow’s every off-kilter whim with his own memorable material and vice-versa. It’s a seamless creative blend.

I always find it interesting when a band that has two or more songwriters manages to be legitimately cohesive. Given the antisocial streak running through Bakesale, it’s difficult to imagine Barlow and Loewenstein sitting down and hashing out the album’s general idea. I suppose the thematic thread of the album is universal enough amongst men in their twenties that Barlow and Loewenstein’s lyrical compatibility shouldn’t be seen as miraculous. Sebadoh aren’t breaking the mold here. If you don’t own Bakesale, you probably own nine or ten albums like Bakesale, but that doesn’t mean you should sleep on it like I did. This is one of those albums that remind you why the basics of indie rock became the basics of indie rock in the first place.