Album of the Week, January 3: Bakesale by Sebadoh

SebadohBakesaleSebadoh started as a side project and evolved into a succesful — and influential — indie rock sensation. Bassist Lou Barlow was a founding member of Dinosaur Jr. Frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to write or sing lead for the band, he started a lo-fi solo venture. Drummer Eric Gaffney joined in the fun, and the pair recorded simple songs on a four-track in whatever space was available. When Dinosaur Jr. leader J Mascis fired Barlow, he took up Sebadoh full time. He switched to guitars (and occasional keyboards) and bassist Jason Loewenstein joined up. The trio recorded as series of albums and EPs, developing a strong reputation and a solid cult following. Barlow’s edgy, folky rock and Gaffney’s thrashy soundscapes made for interesting, varied listening; Loewenstein’s occasional contributions fell neatly in the middle. Gaffney disliked touring and cycled in and out of the group. In late 1993, after six years and as many releases, he left for good in the middle of the sessions for what would be Sebadoh’s strongest album.

Album Bakesale
Act Sebadoh
Label SubPop Release Date August 23, 1994
Producer Tim O’Heir and Sebadoh
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  #40
Tracks
  1. License to Confuse
  2. Careful
  3. Magnet’s Coil
  4. Not A Friend
  5. Not Too Amused
  6. Dreams
  7. Skull
  8. Get It
  9. Shit Soup
  10. Give Up
  11. Rebound
  12. Mystery Man
  13. Temptation Tide
  14. Dramamine
  15. Together Or Alone

Bakesale is more  consistent than any of its predecessors, an odd result given its varied recording sessions. Barlow, Loewenstein, and Gaffney finished four tracks together before new drummer Bob Fay joined the group. Loewenstein recorded three tracks backed only by Tara Jane O’Neil on drums. Fay and Anne Slinn provide duet vocals on the drummer’s one writing contribution. All the songs were recorded in studios instead of on home equipment, however, and Tim O’Heir stitched things together with care, creating a cohesive package.

The opening chords are pure Sebadoh, as Barlow issues a curious mission statement. License to Confuse is more polished than previous tracks, an evolution rather than a departure. The new trio are still loose, but no longer sloppy. Loewenstein’s Careful shows significant growth in his writing and delivery, featuring a klaxon of a guitar line. Barlow’s Magnet’s Coil — released as a single — is a high point, an energetic bit of tension with great vocals and a strong image. This trio is a perfect start to the album.

Not A Friend is one of the four recorded with Gaffney, a Barlow-penned song that explores standard Sebadoh territory of uncertainty. It fits nicely, with a strong Barlow vocal. Not Too Amused is a Loewenstein solo track, an angry surge of music that picks up the pace. Dreams is a very low-key Barlow track, quietly sad and pensive. His Skull is a meditation on addiction, flowing nicely in sequence.

Things get more raucous for a while with Got It (Loewenstein solo), Shit Soup (Loewenstein leading the new trio), and Give Up (Barlow leading the early sessions). They fit together well, amping up the energy in just the right place on the disc. They also set the stage for another highlight, Barlow’s stunning Rebound. A dissection of a romance that will never last, it’s a perfect blend of lyric, music, and delivery.

That could have wrapped up a short-but-sweet album, but the band had an embarrassment of riches from their various sessions and crafted a smart four-song coda. Mystery Man is another Barlow song from the Gaffney sessions. Brooding and ominous, it lets in just enough light to keep the listener intrigued and features a strong, higher register Barlow vocal. Fay and Slinn’s Temptation Tide follows nicely, carrying forces that threaten to overwhelm, with a clever note of sweetness that actually adds to the menace. Dramamine is another Loewenstein solo track, surging with energy. The three fit together as tightly as the opening triad, to very different effect.

The album ends with one of Barlow’s strongest, most straightforward songs. Together Or Alone is a philosophical love song. A pledge to work hard at the relationship blended with enough self-confidence to go it alone if necessary, it’s a mature, powerful statement. Placing it at the end reinforces just how much Sebadoh have grown, sealing the deal on an amazing musical package.

FURTHER LISTENING: Sebadoh’s early work has some interesting moments, but comes off a bit to jarring and unfinished for my tastes. (I like my lo-fi meditative rather than thrashy.) Bubble & Scrape — Gaffney’s last full outing with the band — is a charming mess, easily the best of the early work. III is a fan and critical favorite, but not cohesive enough for my enjoyment.

Harmacy was a strong follow-up to Bakesale. It’s overlong and suffers by comparison, but has many wonderful songs and an even more accomplished sound. Barlow’s other projects — the fully solo Sentridoh and the edgy duo Folk Implosion — took up some of his time, and The Sebadoh was three years in the making and introduced a new drummer. It’s a solid, Harmacy quality album with a bit more consistency. Sebadoh went on hiatus until 2013. With a fourth drummer, Barlow and Loewenstein released Defend Yourself, a solid reminder of the band’s heyday but not too remarkable in its own right.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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