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New Sebadoh album hit hard by lovebug

Sept. 19, 1996

By Mike McKinnon

Lariat Graphics Editor

Demographics lesson. The average Sebadoh fan is an 18- to 26-year-old male. More than likely, the average Sebadoh fan spent the majority of high school dances watching the girl he was hopelessly in love with make out with a guy who had more money and/or muscles than intelligence.

He is probably a musician, actor, artist or writer. You might pigeonhole him as a 'sensitive '90s kind of guy.' Oh, and he's also probably single. He probably likes to whine to his friends about stupid girls and relationships, even though he secretly wishes he had one ­ even a bad one.

'Harmacy,' Sebadoh's new release, isn't going to change any of that.

Lou Barlow (you might remember him from the freaky 'Natural One' video earlier this year with Folk Implosion, one of his main side projects) and company are obviously a sad bunch of guys. With Sebadoh's last album, 'Bakesale,' Barlow focused on his on again, off again relationship with his longtime girlfriend. Well, now he's married to her, so it's time to be sad about something else.

Actually, Barlow wrote only eight of the 19 songs on the album while bassist Jason Lowenstein contributed nine and drummer Bob Fay one. As most Sebadoh fans will reaffirm, though, 'Forget those other guys, we want Lou!'

Barlow's lyrics cut to the chase, not wallowing in extended metaphors, poor-me-isms or sappy drivel. You know exactly how he feels after listening to practically any one of his songs, and that singular quality is the mark of a good songwriter.

Most importantly, Barlow puts his lyrics to music that maybe isn't perfection incarnate, but is able to work itself under your skin after a few listens. 'Brand New Love' from 'Smash Your Head On the Punk Rock,' 'Skull' from 'Bakesale' and 'Too Pure' and 'Perfect Way' from 'Harmacy' typify this.

Barlow absolutely bares his soul on the languid 'Willing to Wait' (which can be heard acoustically as 'Beautiful Friend' on the KROQ Rare on Air collection) and the neo-power ballad 'Too Pure.'

Barlow continues his string of quiet, softly strummed, introspective songs he's known for. Too bad he didn't write the entire album.

Although Lowenstein is totally overlooked as a bassist, he seems to lack the same talent as a songwriter.

Maybe this seems most apparent when his songs are juxtaposed against Barlow's; they just don't seem to carry the mood and theme of the rest of the work. Lowenstein somehow, and don't ask me how, has written two Pixies songs ('Mind Reader' and 'Love to Fight') and­ now don't get violent on me, all you die-hards ­ one Everclear song ('Worst Thing').

Lowenstein seems to be picking up where ex-drummer/songwriter Eric Gaffney left off. Gaffney was literally all over the place. One minute a heart-felt, ballad-y little ditty, the next a raging chunk of noisy punk. It was hard to listen to.

Lowenstein's songs are a little more punk, a little more urgent. Whereas Barlow conveys a sense of quiet earnesty, Lowenstein groans, squeals and screams his discontent, as in 'Crystal Gypsy' and 'Mind Reader.' Still, comparisons to older Sebadoh, such as the lo-fi, white-noise infested 'Smash Your Head...' are distant.

But so are comparisons to the melancholy, manic-depression festival that was 'Bakesale.'

One other disappointing aspect of 'Harmacy' is the number of pointless instrumentals. 'Hillbilly II' doesn't go anywhere; nor does Fay's lone contribution, 'Sforzando!,' which, interestingly enough, at least for the musically literate, does not contain even a hint of a sforzando. 'Weed against Speed' could have been a beautiful song had someone (Barlow) gotten around to writing some lyrics.

Confusion and confusing relationships are traditionally the dominant themes of any Sebadoh album. Barlow is more secure in his relationship than he was on previous albums, so he focuses instead on personal insecurities, the eternal mystery of the opposite sex and, as with 'Ocean,' egotistical, self-serving pseudo-sensitive types (Eddie Vedder? Greg Dulli? Ooooh...maybe even former Dinosaur Jr. bandmate J. Mascis?).

Lowenstein likes to complain about the sad state of his relationships as well, but once again, he does so without the conviction or poetic qualities of Barlow. As for Fay: well, he's the drummer. He plays drums. Period.

Musically speaking, there's a lot to like about 'Harmacy.'

Synth is used tastefully and with imagination (check out the stolen-from-Rick-Wakeman's-box-o-goodies keyboard sound in the opening song, 'A Fire').

The songs are catchy.

Musicianship is better than average, at least within the genre of 'alternative' or 'folk punk.' Gone is the hissy lo-fi ethic. You can actually hear definition and tonal nuances. A good, quality Sebadoh recording! Who woulda thunk it?

The bottom line here. This album, as with all Sebadoh albums, is about relationships. Had one and lost it. In a bad one. Haven't had a meaningful one in a while. Blah blah blah.

If you're tired of Bush or Hootie and the Blowfish prattling on and on about whatever sells a million records these days, be adventurous. Spend 12 bucks on 'Harmacy.' Just keep the demographics in mind.

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