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Sebadoh - III

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Artist: Sebadoh

Album: III

Label: Domino

Review date: Jul. 24, 2006

The liner notes to Domino’s deluxe, double-disc reissue of Sebadoh III speak of a band that was every bit as confused as they sounded. Guitarist and founder Eric Gaffney says “Sebadoh III rules!” Lou Barlow refers to the band at the time as “a disaster,” while drummer Jason Loewenstein summarily replies: “Who cares?” It’s that sort of honesty that almost carries the 1991 double album, certainly one of the sloppiest, most epic monuments to creative non-control this side of … oh, I dunno, Freddy Got Fingered. But 15 years out, III remains that gross long-time acquaintance you try to avoid. Waxy blackheads stud its clogged forehead. Boogers stain its shirt. A gangrenous stench follows its every move. This is an album that rolls its pimple puss into a sebaceous dough, plays with it a bit, then orally reintroduces it back into its system.

And amazingly, such a lack of audio hygiene has helped to justify the music; III was always a record that didn’t know any better and couldn’t help itself. It’s the steaming and frustrated emotions of dejected rancor that spurned such an animal in the first place; this, one of the perfect soundtracks to the confusion of being a young male, thrust into adulthood, mapless and awkward. It provides no reasonable answers; it cannot. How many other records of its stature can make this claim? Even Jandek has some sort of ethos. Even Ween can pull it together after hours of mushroom-based terror. Even Bobb Trimble worked from a tangible pool of influence. Still, just about all those examples miss out on the thing that Sebadoh really lives and dies with on III: the concentrated angst of the teenage boy. The world collapses every day and is rebuilt anew, each time with more traps to inflict undue pain on unfettered innocence. Nothing is fair, and comfort is far away.

I purchased Sebadoh III as a young whelp in high school, on a hissy Homestead cassette. Repeated listens up through graduation powered away any sort of certainties I had built up in my still-searching, endlessly baffled teenage psyche. No wonder I was so fucked up. Eventually I had to put it away, as my jones for the lower fidelity all-stars had found a more reasonable home within GBV, Luxurious Bags, early Fall, and the stark sincerity of New Zealand hometapers. By the time high school ended, the band had signed to Sub Pop and released two albums during a time when I wished them dead, making music that, while more substantial, I was predisposed to ignore based on past experience. When I did choose to look back, III sounded simply wretched. I had moved on; I had buried too many embarrassing early experiences with women and fighting my parents in the album’s hour run-time for me to even make it past the first song, “The Freed Pig.” The guilt rose up my throat like the vomit following my first hangover, and the tape had to go – right under the wheels of a city bus. I directed my anger at the band; discovering their sensitivity to fan bias, I found out just how easily Barlow and Co. could be wound up, and how upset they were that the throngs were decrying their work as “bullshit.” I downed 12 Rolling Rocks before going to see them play the local rock club (with Cub, who I thankfully missed), propped up by a friend and yelling “BORING!” in between each song until band and crowd alike decided to have me ejected from the venue. (Seems as if Jon Spencer had done something similar to the group early on, rallying the battle cry of “Feeble!”)

Now we return to III, and surprisingly, time has been fairly kind to much of Lou’s portion of it all. I look back to when I was 24 years old, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate the making of my own similarly-styled mess, much less the two acoustic albums and deluge of cassettes that preceded it. His songwriting here is at times more comfortable and well-rested than on any of the brokedick Sebadoh recordings made prior, as evidenced on the still-haunting “Spoiled,” within the sick sweetness of “Perverted World,” and all over the restless lop of “Hassle.” That he chose to wind down his formula of clacking, down-strummed acoustic mope following III was a brave step toward normalcy, as his transition to new electric forms still bore his knack for bending pop music into something at once engaging and alternately hiding under a bed. And by all accounts, the guy had been dealt a fairly raw one following his removal from Dinosaur Jr.; the anger would stain his music for years to come. It’s this side that brings Barlow into a very ill-advised four-song stretch of Mascis-spawned vitriol and sand-up-ass, beginning with the whiny “Rockstar” and ending with the horrible hardcore of “God Told Me.” But it’s “The Freed Pig” that really comes off as too much, too soon; a needling scrag of focused annoyance juxtaposed into a melodic pop song, its patently grating single-note leads designed to mimic someone kicking the underside of your chair. Lyrically, it is musical phenol, charring and dissolving all that comes into contact with it. It’s why you should talk things out and think before you speak. It’s every reason why smoking pot as a career is an ill-advised action. It’s the kind of song that breaks bands up, and its sentiments are so hostile and backbiting, Eric Gaffney refused to play the song in the studio.

But perhaps Gaffney is the real problem here. Pulling out of frame, it is now more evident than ever to see how his ideas drag III down, and the band with them. He comes off as highly unaware of his lack of balance, unprepared to make the album at hand, and leaning on a psychosis that threatens to unravel the whole thing. His lyrics are complex, packed down with hidden meaning; the ramblings of one stoned man with a dictionary, and his delivery is patently annoying, a hissing, affected Barlow-esque timbre that switches into sub-death metal growl. His bare lightbulb approach wrecks any semblance of subtlety on his behalf, particularly on the decades-long closer “As the World Dies, the Eyes of God Grow Bigger,” two incessant chords and a useless tale of Manson-esque descent hammered into crazytown: population, you. Here is the necessary second half of Sebadoh: the side that sucks, the side that won’t take its antidepressants even though it really, really needs them to function. Plagued by stoner excess covering up childlike melodies, Gaffney’s contributions are simultaneously inept and self-important, turning the album into the queasy mess you likely remember it as, three-chord meanderings that laze and sway unsteadily. In the liners, Gaffney complains of a nearby high school gang throwing rocks at the garage where Sebadoh practiced. I'll bet they were only trying to hit him. He’s far too aware of himself with this material, and there’s not enough experience and too much dope fogging up his field of view. Then again, he’s always been the weak link to this band, granted too much creative control to allow the group to make any sort of a consistent record at any stage in its career, before or since. By comparison, the slightness of Jason Loewenstein’s three songs on the album seems intentional, and their innocence is mostly what saves the simple country-folk of “Black Haired Girl” or the silliness of “Smoke a Bowl.”

All reissues seem to warrant more material; the second disc of III will make you wish they hadn’t. It is a cobbled-together collection of demos, out-takes, the awful Gimme Indie Rock 7” EP – its titular track serving as both a punch to J Mascis’ solar plexus, and a smart-assed “Talkin’ Baseball” for a scene which deserves to be canonized just about any other way but this – and the patience-testing “Showtape ’91,” in which Barlow intones about 12 minutes worth of pretty much every insult you could hurl at the band into a 4-track, which was subsequently blasted at audiences prior to each live performance.

So there you have it; ridiculously self-aware of its shortcomings, anxieties, and peccadilloes, Sebadoh trudged along anyway, dumping a huge paranormal load on the public’s chest in a fearsome display of raw guts and rawer stupidity. III is one of the few landmark releases in independent rock that is celebrated for what it did, rather than what it was. To appreciate it, even to like or love it, you have to hate at least part of it, and perhaps in turn, part of yourself. I’ve turned around on select Sebadoh these days, particularly the Rockin’ the Forest/Sebadoh vs. Helmet material, songs like Bakesale’s throttling “Rebound,” and particular member off-shoots such as the Kids OST and Deluxx. But to appreciate these, you first need the heat rash of unfiltered records like III. That it warrants reissue in the first place, outside of some time-determined need to resurrect something every 15 to 20 years, speaks to its generation’s mershed-out optimism; a social consumer’s awakening as political awareness (and correctness) crested. It would take a little while longer for it to be acceptable for grown men to cry on record – thank screamo for that – but because of Sebadoh III, they could.

By Doug Mosurock

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