Well, what better way to dip my toes into the fresh bathwater of 2010 than to review an album from 1999? I always end up spending the first couple months of every new year playing catch up on years past, and I simultaneously start re-thinking how I approach reviews and my writing in general. 1999 is my personal Year Zero, you could say, since it was when I started reading music magazines and websites, though I rarely checked them against my own feelings as I do now. It's downright quaint to dig up '99 era reviews of The Sebadoh from Pitchfork, Allmusic.com, or Amazon. Similarly, I think back to the kind of reviews I was writing in high school, college, and even last year. Speaking of, I saw a copy of this album on vinyl for months on end at my local record store, for only $11, but by the time I didn't see enough other albums I wanted and tried to find it, it was gone.
Alas, cruel fate. Perhaps the world was trying to tell me something?
Anyway, for whatever reason, The Sebadoh has some coincidental relationships to my life, yet it never formed any lasting impression on me when I fgot it from the library in 2000. As my first exposure to "indie rock", it was something of a non-event. I remember thinking that the songs weren't catchy enough though I was impressed by the loud and thick sounding guitars. It made me think of the way that you could always hear the bass and guitar pretty definitely and separately in classic rock like Led Zeppelin, and I couldn't understand why so many modern bands mostly buried the bass in the mix. Returning to the album today, after I've spent most of the last decade getting really into music, and indie rock in particular, it's odd how different I feel about it now. I guess it's a sign of how much I've changed?
Lest this review become too introspective, I'll dig into the album now by saying that, while I'm not very familiar with Sebadoh's discography, the modern day version of me likes The Sebadoh. The guitars that so impressed the teenage version of Greg still hit home; in fact, the production may be my favorite thing about the album. The best way I can think to describe it is that it sounds like a clear bootleg, particularly on the mid-fi sounding 'Cuban', which has an off-kilter bass/drum groove that doesn't sound like the classicist "indie rock" that Sebadoh stood for. The overall sound is LOUD but without the kind of distortion and clipping that's associated with the mid-to-late 00's production style of Dave Fridmann. Moreover, the bass is almost always given a powerful kick from some kind of fuzz or overdrive pedal, to the point where I end up mistaking it for a second guitar. It actually reminds me a lot of, say, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or Sleater-Kinney, both of whom (if memory serves) have two guitarists but one of them tunes down to a bassy/mid-range sound. This incredibly loud, bass-y production reaches its peak on 'So Long': whenever I play this in my car, I feel like one of those obnoxious people blowing out their subwoofer to prove how cool they are. It gets that deep and bone rattling.
The Sebadoh isn't all throttling indie rock, though. Some of the tracks make subtle use of keyboards and electronic effects, like the appropriately propulsive opener 'It's All You' or the excellent 'Colorblind', both album highlights. There's also the expected Lou Barlow ballad-type mopers about relationships, but those are my least favorite songs here. The Sebadoh sounds more cohesive and is more consistent than the only other Sebadoh album I've heard, Harmacy, but this is a band that often suffers from the divide between its main songwriters. I never get the sense that Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein were competitive in the least, so they pretty much stick to their own comfortable styles and subjects without trying to outdo one another. Without even a de-facto leader, Sebadoh's albums sound a bit too concerned with equal billing and "we'll take turns." Much as I hate to admit it, bands often need one strong creative personality to make them truly great. I don't mean this to sound like an insult, but: it's pretty telling that Barlow is better known as "the bassist for Dinosaur Jr." and Loewenstein has lately been spending his time as the touring bassist for the Fiery Furnaces. Compare Sebadoh and its songwriters to other, better known contemporaries--Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Doug Martsch of Built To Spill--and you get a similar takeaway.
Ironically, while I may like The Sebadoh more today than I did as a teen, my original assessment is still fairly accurate: the production and overall sound is awesome, but the songwriting isn't quite there. Don't mistake this for a sudden reversal of opinion after I've spent a few paragraphs making nice. It is a really good album, but it's not a "classic." There's a reason it was Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain which got me into indie rock and not The Sebadoh.