Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch
Monday, February 15 1999, 6:37 PM
The latest Sebadoh album makes me think about history. If your primary interest in music reviews is advice on what to buy, I can assure you that you'll like this record if you like Sebadoh. I do. The songs are good -- and sometimes deliberately "bad" -- the way that Sebadoh songs usually are. Some of them betray the slightest hint of electronica a la REM's latest release, Up. And there's something rather odd for Sebadoh: A song that explores racial politics instead of the intricacies of tortured intellectual love. Personally, I'd rank it below my favorite Sebadoh record Bakesale but above the band's last album Harmacy. However I can't help but feel that these details are somehow beside the point. I can't help but hear The Sebadoh as more of the same at a time when its presumed market has moved on to something else. So I'll return to the question of history.
A decade is a long time in the music business. The other day I plunged deep into my CD collection to find something I hadn't heard in a while. I picked Time Between: A Tribute To The Byrds. Tribute records are now so common that I'm surprised more bands don't record tribute albums to themselves, such as "The Music of U2, Reinterpreted by U2." But back in the late 1980s when I purchased this compilation of Byrds covers, the concept was still fresh. Listening to the record today, I was surprised how many of its contributors have disappeared from the music scene. You don't hear too much about The Icicle Works or Giant Sand these days. So I was pleasantly surprised when the track by Dinosaur Jr. came on. At last a band that people still recognize! It got me thinking. Although Dinosaur Jr. became "something" in a way that bands like Thin White Rope and The Mock Turtles never did, there is a sense in which it's time has also passed.
The distinction I wanted to make between Dinosaur Jr. and the album's more obscure contributors reveals more about my own personal datedness than it does about the present-day music business. Dinosaur Jr. was one of those bands of the late 1980s that were swept into the mainstream in the wake of Nirvana's remarkable success. Like Sonic Youth, The Pixies (and their spin-offs The Breeders and Frank Black) and many other bands, the pinnacle of Dinosaur Jr.'s popularity in the early 1990s consisted of a little MTV airtime, a slot in "alternative rock" stations' list of songs to play sometimes (but not all the time), and major-label contracts for minor-label sales. I say all this with the benefit of hindsight. At the time it was happening, I temporarily put aside my suspicion of the business to marvel at the fact that "my" music had finally made it. Listening to Dinosaur Jr.'s version of "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" on the Byrds tribute reminded me of that feeling of exhiliration.
The real surprise was hearing Sebadoh's Lou Barlow sing the lead vocal. It has been so long since J Mascis drove him out of Dinosaur Jr. that I'd temporarily forgotten Barlow was just the bass player in a late 1980s college-radio act. This would have been impossible during the explosion of alternative rock in the early 1990s. Part of the reason Barlow founded Sebadoh was to protest the trajectory that pushed bands like Dinosaur Jr. into the mainstream. While Sonic Youth posed for Gap ads in order to make the money needed to supplement their problematic major-label deal, Sebadoh plotted a resolutely "indie-rock" course. Exaggeratedly low-fi and self-deconstructing, Sebadoh's records appealed to the sort of people who prefer the margins to the center.
In particular, Sebadoh attracted fans of Dinosaur Jr. who felt betrayed by the fact that their favorite band had bought into the music business game. As Barlow's numerous "revenge" songs such as "The Freed Pig" make abundantly clear, Sebadoh's music derived from its negative identity. Behind the music itself was a message: "We're not like those other bands that sold out. We're refusing to play the game. We're different." Sebadoh's refusal extended to live performances. As Dinosaur Jr. shows became more and more like "classic rock" in Barlow's absence, with J Mascis unfurling baroque solo after baroque solo on his fifteen different guitars, Sebadoh shows became more "punk." In particular, the band acquired a reputation for pissing off audiences, leaving the stage early, fighting with each other and their sound person, and directing surly comments at the crowd. So long as Sebadoh was still the anti-Dinosaur Jr., this strategy made a sort of perverse sense. But I'm not sure it does any longer.
This is why I have a hard time enjoying The Sebadoh on its own terms. Sebadoh made its name by reacting to the alternative rock "revolution." But that revolution has given way to the reaction that made the Titantic soundtrack last year's biggest hit. In a music business where rock acts are lucky to find a distributor -- much less a major-label contract -- the fact that Sebadoh's album bears the imprint of both Sub Pop -- standard-bearer for that revolution come and gone and Sire -- the major-label of choice for 1980s college radio acts moving up the music business food chain -- confirms my sense of their new album's belatedness.
Listening to The Sebadoh is like watching some lout pound his fists into a seemingly solid wall, only to find it disintegrate beneath their fury like so much construction paper. In the realm of rock music, Sebadoh can no longer be content being a reaction. They are where the action is. As I was writing this review, a strange image came into my head. I saw Scarlet O'Hara transforming her old curtains into a gorgeous green dress. In the deserted streets where white boys once played their guitars, Sebadoh endures.
The Sebadoh is available from Sub Pop/Sire Records at http://www.subpop.com