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Sentridoh - Lou B's Wasted Pieces: '87-'93

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Artist: Sentridoh

Album: Lou B's Wasted Pieces: '87-'93

Label: Shrimper

Review date: Oct. 9, 2003

There was a time, not so long ago, when indie rock was largely defined by its shambling, inaccessible qualities: lo-fi production techniques, nonexistent stage personas, and quasi-deliberate career suicide. Whether you remember this era with fondness or with derisive exasperation probably depends on your particular taste, but everyone can probably agree that Lou Barlow and Sebadoh were the hands-down champs of this particular brand of anti-showmanship. A trio of bickering fuck-ups, Sebadoh would bury genuinely great songs in albums that were a thicket of poorly-recorded filler and tape loops, often on obscure EPs and hard-to-find singles, forcing fans to pick through quite a bit of rough to find a handful of diamonds.

As much as Sebadoh’s self-destructive tendencies might be perceived as either pretentious posing or juvenile nihilism, it’s important to remember the context of the band’s existence. Forming in the late 1980s, when pop music was a sea of hyper-produced, shiny crap, Sebadoh’s anti-professionalism pared things down to basics of melody and song-writing. The likes of Paula Abdul and C and C Music Factory had reduced the idea of “professionalism” to a rote, robotic recreation of spontaneity, and there was no greater sin for underground bands than to have an “overproduced” album. Sebadoh responded to pop’s hegemony in their early days by recording sparse, low-fi acoustic albums and playing explosive, hardcore sets of noisy guitar and hoarse screaming. However, it always seemed as though there were something else lurking beneath their contradictory, infuriating performance tics and wildly inconsistent albums, something more complex than a mere adolescent need to bewilder their audience. Sebadoh was a confused, unbalanced, fucked-up band because it was a group made of people who let quite a bit of their genuine personalities shine through, for better, or more often, for worse. Few bands have examined their own peculiar insecurities with as much unflinching honesty as Sebadoh, and their performances were a kind of meta-enactment of the fears bubbling through in their songs. These fears are as common as they are ignored by most young men, fears of inadequacy, death, loneliness, and romantic failure. Sebadoh didn’t just write about these fears, they enacted them.

Indie rock has changed a great deal in ten years, and it’s difficult for those who came of age in the late nineties to realize just how massive Sebadoh’s influence was on the bands around them, and on their fans’ expectation of what rock music should be. Sebadoh was always ruthlessly confessional, but its tone was simultaneously self-mocking, uncomfortable with its revelations. So, unlike the current crop of emo bedwetters, Barlow’s songs did not function simply as a purge, emotion for its own sake. Rather, the lyrics tended to rotate around questioning Barlow’s motives, his intentions, or even his own integrity. The music’s propulsive, angular hooks served as a sharp contrast to Barlow’s often embarrassing admissions, pushing the songs forward even as the lyrics admitted defeat.

As Sebadoh moved, inevitably, towards indie stardom (and an eventual demise), Barlow used the moniker Sentridoh to release his home-recorded acoustic songs. By now, several dozen Sentridoh songs exist in the ether, either as albums, singles, and EPs or as random flotsam on Barlow’s website. Perhaps predictably, some of the songs are brilliant, some are nearly unlistenable, and others are simply mediocre. But Sentridoh has always been more than a simple diary for Barlow, or a collection of cast-offs. Rather, the project has consistently offered a parallel course for his music, a stubborn refusal to drag every idea into the studio for a full polish. As a result, Sentridoh has often produced some of Barlow’s most direct and powerful output, free from the constraints of band democracy and commercial expectation.

Sentridoh’s latest, Lou B’s Wasted Pieces, is even more scattered than usual, given that it’s a collection spanning six years of Barlow’s early recordings. Despite the lack of cohesion, it’s a remarkably consistent collection in terms of quality, full of the early, rough vibrancy of Sebadoh. All the familiar elements are here: shame, loss, masturbation, and buried anger, the constant standbys of Barlow’s oeuvre. But it’s been a few years since any acoustic Barlow recordings have surfaced, and in the light of current musical vogues, this stuff feels as fresh and as strange as it did fifteen years ago. Turning the rickety four-track setup into both an aesthetic and a conscious artistic choice, Barlow spits out ninety-second acoustic rants and pleadings like a vintage hardcore band, songs tumbling over each other in a battered mess, words and melodies tugging for your attention before being replaced with a noisy sound fragment or a wash of tape hiss.

There are beautiful, fragile moments: “Nitemare”, a simple song about waking up alone after a breakup, has a quiet power that’s belied by its casual delivery. “Albuquerque ‘89” recounts Barlow masturbating in an adult-video booth, damning himself for his “stupid habit” and begging his girlfriend for forgiveness. It’s certainly awkward, but it’s also gently affecting in its honesty and acknowledgement of Barlow’s neediness. But what truly stands out is the messy bulk of the whole album, 31 songs that play as one long, uninterrupted vamp on the same song. Every band has, essentially, one kind of song, and Wasted Pieces, as much as anything, is a demonstration of Barlow’s song: beautiful, crushing, witty, and intimate, a song that is most broadly about human confusion and desire. Although Barlow has always been tagged with the role of the spokesman for the sensitive indie-boy generation, this is somewhat unfair, and lessens his contribution. Barlow’s persona in song is far from that of a p.c. doormat, or a soulful folkster. He’s petty, selfish, and angry as much as he’s thoughtful and giving. For, while Barlow’s is obviously a male voice, his songs resonate because they speak to basic human problems and concerns: communication, understanding, living with ourselves. It’s a complicated problem, and as such it has produced as many failures as successes in Barlow’s work. But this is always what made Sebadoh so exciting. The next song could be a catastrophe or a work of genius. Barlow, as well as co-contributors Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein, were searching for something that they couldn’t quite articulate, a synthesis of complex, messy human emotions in the context of a wiry post-punk rock song. Failure was built into Sebadoh, which only made their success more thrilling.

With the release of 1999’s The Sebadoh, things had begun to sound formulaic, and the band’s renowned spontaneity had mostly been forgotten. And although their previous album, Harmacy, had been well-received, the relative failure of The Sebadoh seems to have pushed the band apart, potentially for good. Whether this is for the best is difficult to say, but even if they never re-form, Wasted Pieces provides an essential document of Barlow’s talent and the intensity that brought Sebadoh to our attention in the first place. This stuff hasn’t aged a day, and it’s also a good reminder that simplicity and immediacy can sometimes produce the most affecting results. Barlow’s is a unique and quixotic talent, one that inherently trips itself up. As such, his songs always make for an intense, sometimes difficult experience, but one that is ultimately satisfying because it mirrors so closely the complexities of our own emotional lives.

By Jason Dungan

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