For lack of a better phrase, if someone asked me to describe Sebadoh’s sound I would call it “progressive indie rock.” There isn’t a whole lot of music I know of quite like Sebadoh’s so, at least in my book, they get to own the category title for now, and that is a good thing.
How else might one try to pin down a music (cuz, face it, that is what most reviewers try to do) that in one breath blends often-heartbreaking melodies with borderline dissonant guitar and bass sounds and the propulsive spirit of the best of indie rock bands. This music at once channels the joyous free-fall spirt of abandon one might hear on a peak period recording by Captain Beefheart while offering up a sense of tunefulness this side of Summerteeth-era Wilco.
A new Sebadoh album is out and the world is automatically a better place for it. The band’s first since 1999, this new album more or less picks up on the classic Sebadoh sound of the mid ’90s, with songs written by primary lead singer Lou Barlow — reportedly revolving around the breakup of his marriage — as well as Jason Lowenstein. There is a lot of pain and joy in these songs. Defend Yourself is a 13-song cycle of sorts that plays out a sense of heartbreak with the free-falling abandon and joy of someone who has just discovered a newfound lease on life. A bunch of the tunes sung by (I’m assuming) Jason Lowenstein have a distinct alt-Americana flavor to them, with vocals delivered with a slight country-punk twang (“Can’t Depend” , “Separate”). This offers a nice contrast to Lou Barlow’s bittersweet wounded singer-songwriter sound. Together all these songs make for a compelling cohesive listen that grows with repeated plays.
Tunes like “Let it Out” play like an alternative universe John Sebastian song (I’ve always found Lou’s voice had that same sort of mellifluous soothing tonality about it). It is followed by the slow burn build of “Listen” which features slashing lead bass guitar lines alongside these really pretty guitar figures. “Oxygen” has a soaring lead bass line that The Move’s Ace Kefford would probably applaud.
Then there are songs like album opener “I Will” and “State of Mine” which pump along with this sort of chiming splendor, sometimes breaking into a off-kilter dissonant break riff that would not be uncommon on an early Captain Beefheart record. “Beat” bears more that lovely Beefheartian progressive dissonance yet presented in an indie rock form this side of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. “Inquiries” sounds like a mad caffeinated cowboy tune run through a punk pop blender with wonderful big prog rock chord breakdowns while the title track borders on some later period King Crimson territories with a dense layered, metal-flavored chordal electric guitar barrage.
One of the most powerful tracks on the album is an instrumental called “Once” that, again in progressive rock spirit, blends cool riffs and melody with aggressive indie rock playing to create something distinct. I’d love to hear Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd soloing over this tune like they did in Television back in the 1970s. To that, and if one article I read online about the making of this album is accurate, Lou was playing more four-string guitar and tuning lower again on this album, akin to what they did on some of their earlier and best recordings such as Bakesale. Since it was also apparently recorded in their rehearsal space, that adds to the powerful DIY intimacy and immediacy of the music.
Defend Yourself comes with a bonus 7-inch single too which is very cool since they also send you the codes for a free download (“Imminent Emergency” and “No Wound”). Between these and the 5 songs on the “Secret EP” they released last year, in total we get some 20 new Sebadoh songs to rock our collective world. Not a bad thing, kiddies. Especially since the songs are so good. My faves on the EP so far include the powerful opening march-step epic “Keep The Boy Alive” which in an alternate universe would be top of the pop charts.
There is no doubt that this album was recorded digitally but looking at some of the outboard gear they used to get their sounds into the computer (in one of their videos), its pretty clear to me that the payed close attention to sonics making this album. Even at its most dense and dissonant, the music on Defend Yourself rings through loud and clear with a remarkable sense of analog-flavored definition. The album doesn’t sound particularly “digital,” a common complaint among many audiophiles these days. Even listening to the 320 kbps downloads of the album, it sounds remarkably good.
Defend Yourself is a salty-sweet, crunchy-nutty rock ‘n roll candy bar with moments of buttery bliss.
The beautiful opaque red vinyl (limited edition run of 2500) is thick and fairly quiet. There was an even more limited edition “tri-color” pressing (red/yellow/blue) which I hope to get my hands on someday (so pretty!). But until then, this copy of Defend Yourself and the recent Secret EP (five-song 10-inch vinyl and download) collection from last year are more than satisfying the void for new music from Sebadoh!
Mark Smotroff, a freelance writer and avid music collector, first saw Sebadoh perform live at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the mid ’90s. He has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer (www.ingdom.com) who’s songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.