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The Sebadoh
Sebadoh
Sub Pop/Sire Records

Lou Barlow became important without meaning to. He impressed others by recording his fragile, angry songs on whatever happened to be lying around, whether it was a four-track recorder or a busted Walkman. It didn't matter, because at first, it wasn't about style: He had to get the songs out of his head onto a tape, and he didn't know--or couldn't afford--a better way to do it. Somewhere along the way, though, what was born out of necessity became a technique, and Sebadoh--like Guided By Voices and so many other bedroom Brian Wilsons--bought into the notion that the sketch pad was not only as important as the finished painting, it was beautiful enough all by itself. Ideas became songs before they were ready, and real songs were undercut by Barlow's deliberate ineptitude. He could write some of the most oppressively open lyrics, yet he hid his words behind walls of static, confessing his sins in a language no one could understand.

If it made sense then, it doesn't today, and, to his credit, Barlow realizes as much, at long last letting the producer do his job on The Sebadoh. The lo-fi setting is less appropriate now that he's figured out how to write a song rather than simply sing his life into a beat-up tape recorder. Since 1994's Bakesale, the focus has shifted from him to the music; melodies replace malice, choruses sub for awkward confusion. Bakesale may have been an uneasy and uneven entry into the studio, but it proved that's where the band really belonged.

With The Sebadoh, Barlow and the band--longtime collaborator Jason Loewenstein and new drummer Russ Pollard--have reconciled themselves to that fact. It's produced but certainly not polished, and it probably won't ever be as long as Loewenstein shares half of the songwriting duties; if you were wondering what happened to Jawbox, they're apparently living inside Loewenstein's head (cf. "It's All You," "So Long"). And his "Bird in the Hand" might turn up on a Nirvana B-sides compilation sooner or later. However, Barlow's recent embrace of pure pop is more than enough to smooth Loewenstein's rough edges. "Weird" is even catchier than Barlow's previous attempts at making friends with the radio, full of AM-radio jingle-jangle urged on by fuzzy, galloping bass lines and because-we-can tambourine bruises. But the urgent "Flame" might be the finest song Barlow has ever penned--at least, the best one you've ever heard--dance-pop for the indie-rock set, Pollard's marching-band beat supporting a guitar riff that never really finishes before it starts again. And you never want it to stop.

--Zac Crain

 
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