After being booted from Dinosaur Jr for what J Mascis dubbed “excessive social ineptitude” (mull that one over), Lou Barlow focused his energies on Sebadoh, a “band” that had existed since the mid-’80s. Propelled by the creative tension between Barlow’s fractured singer/songwriter delirium and Eric Gaffney’s more aggressive noise collage work, Sebadoh set the standard by which all subsequent lo-fi combos would be judged. Although often maddeningly slothful and utterly incapable of separating — or even acknowledging the difference between — the wheat and chaff of their produce, the band has enough intrinsic songcraft skill to make mighty engaging pop records when it so chooses.
Barlow and Gaffney recorded the 32-song The Freed Man in various living rooms and bedrooms from 1986 to 1988, which doesn’t seem to have been a long enough span for the duo to go back and finish more than a handful of these half-baked fragments. Although their writing styles are radically different, they share a notion that a single clever idea — as contained in “Why Do You Cut Off Your Sleeves” and “I Love Me” — is enough to justify a song’s release. The frustrating part is that, when developed — like Barlow’s “Healthy Sick,” later covered by Bettie Serveert — those ideas often turn out to be pretty good after all. To paraphrase an old TV commercial, it sounds like The Freed Man was more fun to make than it is to eat. They were signed on the strength of the original self-released cassette by Homestead, which then released an album of the same name.
Although sonically indistinguishable from The Freed Man, Weed Forestin (a title recycled from Barlow’s first homemade tape) is a considerably more distinct crystallization of the Sebadoh “thing.” Barlow’s gift for throwing off moving heartbreak lyrics — and his penchant for submerging them under layers of off-putting noise — make songs like “Temporary Dream” and “Take My Hand” utterly riveting. Barlow serves notice of things to come on the feedback-mottled “Brand New Love” (later covered by Superchunk), which might be the most guileless, genuine love song produced in indie-rock’s post-post-modern times. The Freed Weed compiles 41 tracks from the two prior releases.
The addition of Jason Loewenstein — primarily as a bassist, but also as a drummer, guitarist and a third songwriting voice — pushes Sebadoh precariously close to professional territory on III, a mid-fi recording that betrays some real effort on the members’ part. As unhip as that might sound to Sebadoh purists, it allows Barlow to vent both undiluted bile (on “The Freed Pig,” the leadoff track, which is a pointed jibe at Mascis) and hippie-dude hopefulness (“Total Peace”) with élan. Gaffney channels his aggro more effectively, which distinguishes powerful songs like “Violet Execution” (marked by some jarringly jagged guitar lines) and “As the World Dies the Eyes of God Grow Bigger” from his previous tantrums. The pointless deconstruction of Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” aside, it’s a stellar effort. The 2006 slipcase reissue adds a second full disc of bonus material, including the Gimme Indie Rock! EP, unreleased home recordings, demos, remixes and other ephemera. The liner notes (essays by each of the three principal members) are every bit as entertaining and illuminating as the music.
The silliness and indulgence were only in remission, as evidenced by the squawkfest Oven Is My Friend, which only approaches listenability on the title track, an obscure hardcore cover. Rockin’ the Forest has its share of pointless noise digressions as well, but they’re sandwiched between some outright rock songs rife with dynamics and sagacious observations. The latter element is especially evident on “Gimme Indie Rock,” which could function as a loving tribute to or a wry dismissal of the increasingly incestuous underground scene — slipperiness being the ironist’s most important tool. Sebadoh vs. Helmet contains covers of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and David Crosby’s “Everybody’s Been Burned,” both of which emphasize Barlow’s vulnerable vocal croak and surprisingly dexterous acoustic guitar playing. Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock is a twelve-song best-of covering the previous two releases.
By the time Bubble & Scrape was released, the strain between members was palpable, what with Gaffney’s numerous sabbaticals and Barlow’s spending more time on his solo Sentridoh project. Despite, or perhaps because of, the evident lack of communication, the album is Sebadoh’s most urgent yet, with Barlow and the increasingly confident Loewenstein crafting rough-hewn pop gems, and Gaffney kicking dirt over everything in sight (on rants like “Elixir Is Zog”). Barlow’s best efforts — like “Soul and Fire” and “Two Years Two Days” — could pass for bizarro-world Brill Building derivatives; thankfully, they, along with dark, acoustic Loewenstein compositions like “Happily Divided,” dominate the disc.
Gaffney left — for good this time — during the recording of Bakesale, a comparatively slick recording that finds Barlow compensating for the noisemaker’s departure by toughening up his own approach. While “Together or Alone” and “Not a Friend” are marked by his typical loner’s melancholy, Barlow positively kicks out the jams on “License to Confuse.” At the same time, Loewenstein, now ensconced in the bass slot (occasional collaborator Bob Fay takes over the drum duties) assumes a heftier chunk of the songwriting. His tracks, while not terribly dissimilar to Barlow’s, offer needed if subtle counterpoint. (Despite its title, 4 Song contains “Rebound” and “Careful” as a two-tune preview of Bakesale and eight 4-track recordings by the new lineup.)
Barlow has made no secret of his contempt for standard music biz operations, refusing high profile gigs whenever they’re offered and continually subverting Sebadoh’s poppiest material with sonic red herrings — which makes the Top 40 breakthrough he achieved with the similarly abstruse Folk Implosion (for the admittedly catchy “Natural One”) all the more comical. A side project he’s shared with cassette-underground stalwart John Davis, the Folk Implosion is only marginally distinguishable from recent Sebadoh releases in that Barlow’s introversion has given way to a sort of wry worldview that still bears a certain mistrust of the world. The 24-song eponymous British cassette (parts of which are reprised on both Walk Through This World and Take a Look Inside) is both short and sharp, with surprising fidelity for a collection of home recordings. The same can be said of the 500-pressed Electric Idiot EP, the contents of which got a second commercial life on the seven-song Lou Barlow 50/50 John Davis (aka The Folk Implosion, along with both sides of a ’95 single).
Take a Look Inside…the Folk Implosion is more ambitious than those releases, thanks in part to minor studio tinkering (on the reverb-laden “Blossom”) and in part to snappy genre juxtapositions — like the Mersey-punk title track and the Lennonish “Slap Me.” Yes, pothead silliness takes its toll on the Residents-styled pastiche “Sputnik’s Down,” but Barlow and Davis pack the 22-minute, fourteen-song disc with enough good ideas to compensate. Although the insular Barlow seems like an exceedingly odd choice to provide a soundtrack for a movie about urban youth on sex-and-drug binges, his work on the Kids soundtrack (which also includes equally misplaced songs by Daniel Johnston) is fairly effective, if (aside from “Natural One”) less than compelling — a charmingly subtle dance-pop variation on Barlow’s usual bedsit romanticism.
Sentridoh is essentially Barlow’s compost heap — an outlet for him to release the type of half-finished discards most artists would tape over. Winning Losers contains ten acoustic numbers, four of them from a 1991 cassette entitled Losers — you get the self-deprecating thematic idea. The Lou Barlow and Friends disc is leftovers from collaborative efforts with Fay and others. An endless array of cassettes — most of them on California’s Shrimper imprint — compile snippet after snippet of one-take acoustic muddle. As the aptly titled Most of the Worst and Some of the Best implies, Barlow can’t be bothered to differentiate between the two — or to tune his guitar even a little — so that his refusal to play by the rules becomes the product in itself. If this is art, give me product any time.
Lou Barlow may take a lot of shit for being lazy in his work ethic and self-indulgent with his releases, but the guy carried the lo-fi home-taping torch long enough (in the process paving a way for folks like John Darnielle, Will Oldham and Bill Callahan) to not only be taken seriously but to establish a fan base of sorts. Beyond that, Barlow is capable of writing terrific songs. Nowhere is that more evident than on Emoh, the first record the old fart was proud enough of to credit to himself under his real name, not a pseudonym (which was all Sentridoh was anyway). Emoh is as professional as Barlow gets, which is way more professional than anyone ever thought he could be. You can almost see the guy wearing a suit and tie in the studio, with perfectly combed hair and a fresh shave, carefully strumming his acoustic and tapping his foot to the beat, resisting any temptation to, well, have fun. Gone are the slackerish foibles and blah-blahs that characterized the “Loobie-core” aesthetic of the ‘90s; in fact, most of the album sounds radio-friendly. One of the songs (“Legendary”) was used on The OC. The best tunes here (the folksy “Holding Back the Year,” “Home,” “If I Could”) are intimate without being overtly personal, which has always been one of Barlow’s major problems. More than being a blend of Folk Implosion and Sebadoh, Emoh is a direct reaction to the increasingly embarrassing extravagances of lo-fi artists like Kind of Like Spitting and Will Oldham’s re-recording of old Palace songs under the name Bonnie Prince Billy (really, how’s that for self-indulgent?). Not only is it Barlow’s most accessible work to date, it is undoubtedly his most mature. He even pulls off a cover of Ratt’s “Round and Round” without a hint of irony.
Mirror the Eye, a five-song EP released on a Spanish label, is a bit more abstract and leans toward the slapped-together sound of Barlow’s earlier work. It comes off as a collection of could-have-beens for other albums. “Yawning Blue Messiah” would have fit on Emoh, but would have been distracting, while “Faith Defies the Night” could be from later Sebadoh.