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Lo-Fi Hi-Fives: Sebadoh-III

“Turning personal vendetta and small-minded revenge tactics into eventual cult status, Sebadoh!”–from “Showtape ’91,” a collection of hype tracks made by Sebadoh.

Welcome to the rocky IVth installment of Lo-Fi Hi-Fives. Released the same month as Nirvana’s Nevermind, seBADoh’s III nails the mussy, lovesick vibes of early 90’s slackerdom while still sounding vital in the last week of 2017. After wrapping up listening to III on my Mp3 player, I still felt the urge to find a cassette, somewhere, and rewind it.

Sebadoh’s incarnation began in the summer of ’89 in Eric Gaffney’s Oak Street garage space in Florence, Massachusetts, located near both a magnet and casket factory. Gaffney and fellow founding member Lou Barlow’s lives were particularly aimless at that point, so much time was devoted to hanging out and recording shaky songs held together by duct tape. The duo released two records, The Freed Man and Weed Forestin’ before adding 20-year-old Jason Lowenstein. The versatility of all three members provided the leeway for two distinctly different and interesting lineups: 1) Eric guitar, Lou bass, Jason drums; or 2) Lou guitar, Jason bass, and Eric drums.

Sebadoh’s third, at that time most “polished” album, was made for $1,300 in the last two weeks of March 1991. Half of the songs were recorded in the snug Fort Apache North in Cambridge, MA. It was Jason’s first time in a studio and Eric’s second, the group had performed only ten shows together before recording III. The other half of the songs were recorded at home (3 by Jason, 9 by Lou). Unlike his band-mates, Lou Barlow had some experience in a recording studio…

Barlow was still smarting about his unceremonious firing from the influential Dinosaur Jr. He was angry at J. Mascis, angry at music in general, broke and in love (with on-off girlfriend Kathleen Billus). In March 1990 he followed Billus to the grimy suburb of Somerville, MA; while she shadowed an architect, Lou puzzled the words and music that became the bulk of his III output. Most of his songs on the album are acoustic-based 4-track home recordings in a style he had been developing since 1986…hammered out percussion on household objects, slam-strummed four-string Stella acoustic (the cheapest guitar ever), all indulging his love of tape collage and layering the sounds without traditional tunings or recording techniques.

Barlow drove 90 miles three times a week to Sebadoh practice. The sessions floated between tight arrangements of the songs they had bothered to learn and free-form “oppressive noodling.” They would often switch instruments to suit the songwriter or the mood of the day. Barlow’s recordings tended to be on the gentler, introspective side while Gaffney yelped idiosyncratic puzzles; Loewenstein was a little of Column A a little of Column B. For the final listening of III, they all got high. The band was overwhelmed and emotional by the unraveling psychic storm. “It wasn’t just the weed,” recalls Barlow.

The album cover of III is appropriately strange: a black and white photograph that features a woman, a baby crawling toward her, and a fake-looking dog intercepting the baby. Gaffney took the picture as a child in 1975 in a cemetery near Northampton. Even though I’m sure the moment this photo captured was pure and heartwarming the results are quite distrubing. One could almost attribute the three figures on the cover to the three band members: Barlow was the mature, emotional anchor (the woman), Gaffney the bizarre screamer (the baby), and Lowenstein bridged the gap between those two extremes (the dog in the middle).

The album begins with an absolute classic: the angular, Mascis-bashing “The Freed Pig.” Barlow perfected the art of the break-up song while Taylor Swift was experiencing her Terrible Twos, sewing with a sharp needle and the thread of a zany hook. The lyrics expertly capture red-faced rejection logic, first reflection and self-doubt (“Self-righteous but never right, so laid-back but so up-tight”) then a shift of blame back to the target (“Your big head has got more room to grow, a glory I will never know”). Perhaps the biggest diss of all is the fact that *cough* it’s better than any Dinosaur Jr. song *end cough* J. Mascis fired back by producing The Breeders’ cover of this song, seemingly throwing the words right back at Lou.

III is often considered the Double Nickels on the Dime of the 1990s–an overly long, sprawling, unfocused masterpiece. The comparison is somewhat apt–both albums were released as a “take that!” to a popular SST act–but the Minutemen were far more political and far more precise in message and musicality. Still, the roaring “Sickles and Hammers” is a fitting tribute to the Watt-Boon friendship (the polar opposite of Barlow-Mascis). The cover was a last-second idea right as the mics were being pulled down; it was Jason’s first guitar on record.

Although this fragmentary record is composed of studio sessions and home tapes with three different lead singers and three vastly different styles, things feel surprisingly fluid and together. All the voices share a similar pleasant drone and there’s a consistent wave of rickety folk and power sludge throughout. “Total Peace” and “Violet Execution” contain almost the same twinkly ambiance until Gaffney executes the line in “fingers dance on the mouth in your FACE (“Two-Headed Boy” anyone?)” “Violet Execution” would be my favorite song if not for the two God-Tier bookends.

Barlow, Loewenstein and Gaffney insisted on color-coding their songs on the back cover so that you’d know who wrote what (Barlow’s songs were brown, Gaffney’s red, Jason’s black). The fuzzy “Scars Four Eyes” is the only song that they all collaborated on together. I really love the energy of these first five tracks (4 out of the 5 were recorded in studio), things slow down considerably when he get to the cozier home tracks.

Probably the main reason why III is so concise was the wise decision to insert the solo stuff in clusters of 3 or 4 songs (Barlow has chunks of 3, 4, and 3 and of course there’s Loewenstein’s controversial three-song suite). Barlow’s first segment is his best: the sweet “Truly Great Thing” and catchy “Perverted World” sandwich the gorgeous, anxious “Kath.” Barlow recorded “Kath” at beside one night while Kath was sleeping (she must be a sound sleeper).

A warped rendition of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful, Wonderful” manages to fit comfortably into III‘s grain. Including covers can be difficult because it has to come from an unlikely source to avoid redundancy but also be able to exist in the same universe as the other songs on the album (the best example of this is probably Galaxie 500’s “Ceremony”). For the AV Club Undercover series, Sebadoh performed a version of Rush’s “Limelight” that was not well recieved by the commentariat. The video is unfortunately lost to history but in all honesty the best part was Becca James’ intro.

As stated previously, Jason Loewenstein was only 20 was when he joined the band. He has vivid memories of being underage but performing in bars and being intimidated by his older, more established band-mates. Every day he worried was the day he’d get kicked out; he was on edge for the recording of III,
“worried the floor was going to fall out and the place explode.” His three-song contribution is generally considered to be the weak points of this album: the lazy “Smoke a Bowl,” average country “Black Haired Gurl,” the lazy “Hoppin’ Up and Down.” But hey, Jason was only 20 and in my opinion would go on to be the MVP of Sebadoh’s next album Bakesale.

During the vocals on “Supernatural Force” there was a blackout in the studio

Barlow’s next crop of four (“Rockstar,” “Downmind,” “Renaissance Man,” and “God Told Me”) are his hissiest and certainly not a Grand Slam, but they did lend themselves to an interesting Guided By Voices fan theory that I did not come up with. The theory posits that there are several moments on III (particularly these four songs) that sent Bob Pollard running to his proverbial suitcase. Stuff like “Downmind” granted him the license to jettison the faux R.E.M. of Sandbox and Devil Between My Toes and to dust off tracks Pollard had feared were too poor quality to showcase to anyone outside of the Monument Club.

“Holy Picture” sounds decent if you first time listening to the album is in reverse, but for everyone else it sounds like a lesser “Violet Execution.” The highlight of Barlow’s last three offerings is the lament “Spoiled.” Anyone who somehow made it to the end of the 1995 exploitation film Kids can hear
“Spoiled” in the closing credits. Kids might have the all-time highest disparity between the quality of the soundtrack and the quality of the movie.

The band brought a gift for Gaffney of a large bottle of whiskey which was consumed during the vocal session for carcinogenic closer “As the World Dies the Eyes of God Grow Bigger.” The lyrics, documenting Gaffney’s fucked-up family, were written the night before, some added on the spot. With a resulting hangover, Gaffney didn’t show up for the mixing the next day and didn’t hear the results until it was completely finished. The tape ran out while they were still playing and somehow ended in a good place.

Gaffney expresses regret for the vocals of “As the World Dies the Eyes of God
Grow Bigger,” alternating between an inviting drawl and acidic screaming but I think they perfectly support the hilarious, sad lyrics (Dad fried on liquid LSD, young Eric’s head hitting concrete, grandma getting stoned, holding baby brother’s hand). The back-and-forth continues until the pattern breaks in a terrifying way, resulting in an unforgettable finale.

Sebadoh’s appeal sprouted from a certain mystery deeply rooted in emotional pain. They embodied the snotty, ironic, anti-PR indie even more than Nirvana, who was about to become mega popular by preaching that ethos (Sebadoh peddled shirts Barlow made with magic markers and they viciously sword-fought each other with guitar necks onstage). III and Nevermind were released on the same month, although the latter is often hailed as the most influential album of the last 30 years, most of Nirvana’s imitators are trapped in MTV’s rubble. If you go onto Bandcamp, there sure are a lot of bands that sound quite a bit like seBADoh.

Final Judgement, on the order of zero to five fingers (with a Hi-Five being a perfect score): beneath the bile, there’s warmth and intimacy here that is perfectly suited for listening to in the dead of winter. While it would be deliciously ironic to give III a score of three, I can’t give something so satisfying a score lower than five fingers. Hi-Fives all around for Sebadoh! (I think the skin-to-skin contact would be enough to give me a contact high).

Superfluous Rankings:

1. The Freed Pig
2. As the World Dies the Eyes of God Grow Bigger
3. Violet Execution
4. Kath
5. Gimme Indie Rock (the expanded edition contains 18 bonus tracks and instead of ranking all 41–ffffffuucccck that, there’s no way I’m ranking that many songs–I gave the best one it’s proper spot on the list) “Gimme Indie Rock” was improvised. It caught on, like joke-songs often do.
6. Spoiled
7. Scars, Four Eyes
8. Sickles and Hammers
9. Perverted World
10. God Told Me
11. Wonderful, Wonderful
12. Downmind
13. Truly Great Thing
14. Total Peace
15. Renaissance Man
16. Limb by Limb
17. No Different
18. Supernatural Force
19. Holy Picture
20. Black Haired Gurl
21. Rockstar
22. Hassle
23. Hoppin’ Up and Down
24. Smoke a Bowl

Study Question: Are there any other albums where the two best songs are the first and last ones?

Next Time: In honor of New Year’s a countdown to a year certain to be worse than the last, it’s my most superfluous rankings yet.