Sebadoh’s tighter, cleaner The Sebadoh

An early Sebadoh song claimed that “As the World Dies, the Eyes of God Grow Bigger.” In all honesty, it was a pretty lousy song, but not an unimportant one: as Sebadoh’s sound continues to expand in girth and breadth, it’s had to ward off its own death by implosion and irrelevance.

So far, the band has succeeded quite admirably in surviving its own expansion without changing its fundamental ideals. The formula, if not the production value, is straight out of the collegiate bedroom, just as it was on 1991’s landmark III. Lou Barlow still writes plenty of plaintive odes to moderately tortured love, while Jason Lowenstein still writes plenty of less plaintive odes to moderately tortured love and the occasional not-so-plaintive ode to marijuana.

Standard stuff, maybe, but the songwriters of Sebadoh are masters of their narrow field, in large part because they bring a reverent studiousness to their music. Key example: the cutely named new album The Sebadoh thanks hundreds of seminal rock bands – from indie figureheads the Fall and Young Marble Giants to the Beach Boys to Tom Petty to Lynyrd Skynyrd (at least a dozen times, curiously) – for their inspiration.

And you can tell that the band’s gratitude is sincere. 1996’s Harmacy featured a cover of obscure Boston punkers the Bags, and while there are no covers this time around, there’s no shortage of allusions. Ghosts of the Beatles (who got thanked, of course) pop up in the backtracked instrumental passage of Barlow’s “Tree” (think “I’m Only Sleeping”) and the fade out/in of the guitar outro to “Flame” (a “Helter Skelter” rip). Lowenstein does his poor man’s Ozzy on the dirge “So What.” Barlow, I’m convinced, unintentionally sings the chorus of his “So. Central Rain” tribute “Sorry” with a vaguely Stipe-ian twist. And that’s just for starters.

The point to all this is that the oft-overlooked strength of Sebadoh’s music is that it is, above all else, informed. The matte finish of Sebadoh’s songs has always belied the surprising activity – intellectual and sonic – that lurks underneath. Thanks to two developments – one gradual, one unexpected – The Sebadoh conveys this depth of activity more fully than any Sebadoh album to date.

The gradual development, a surprise to no one, is the ongoing push into new levels of professionalism and production. Barlow and Lowenstein are much more accomplished as players than they were circa III (they might even have spent some time practicing!), and they’re laying down the tracks on a studio mixing board, not a four-track in Lou’s bedroom.

This was a mixed blessing on the band’s previous effort, Harmacy, where the group too often wasted its tighter, cleaner sound on flaccid tunes. Enter an unexpected development: the dismissal of drummer Bob Fay and the hiring of replacement Russ Pollard. Pollard’s presence energizes The Sebadoh, providing essential focus with his sturdy rhythms. Percussion is (relatively) forgrounded on the album; it gives tracks such as “Flame” and “It’s All You” a groove that Sebadoh has never before captured.

It inspires Barlow and Lowenstein to more purposeful playing as well. Barlow’s traditionally introspective numbers – cases in point “Weird” and “Sorry” – are buoyed by crisper, more directed guitar lines. Lowenstein’s classic rock-inspired numbers, which weighed down parts of Harmacy, take on new life as well: “Bird in Hand” and “So Long” soar in places where they would have merely chugged along before.

It’s a damn good thing because, frankly, Sebadoh has had better songwriting efforts. True, it’s unfair to expect Barlow to come up with more singles as marvelously insistent as “The Freed Pig” or “Ocean.” In general, though, even The Sebadoh’s most compelling tracks – the single “Flame,” “Weird,” “It’s All You,” “Love Is Stronger” and “Bird in Hand” – get by more on groove than hook.

For a band whose earlier recordings relied on lyricality piercing through lo-fi hiss, this might be putting the cart before the horse. But even if its songs don’t quite stack up to past glories, The Sebadoh finds the band having the most fun its had since the days of Eric Gaffney. Give ’em indie rock, and maybe they’ll never die.

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