Thursday, November 15

Sebadoh has goods on ‘Bakesale’


Sebadoh has goods on ‘Bakesale’

Singer/songwriter Barlow follows classical tradition

By Michael Tatum

That Lou Barlow ­ he’s such a perfectionist. Barlow,
co-front man of the indie-rock band Sebadoh, has in the past been
the subject of much celebration in the rock press, and his band’s
latest full length release, "Bakesale" (Sub Pop), has had the
critics once again gushing with superlatives.

But is the man himself satisfied? Yes and no.

"It’s more of a straightforward rock and roll record than the
previous ones," he allows. "I’m not crazy about studio recording,
but it has a good, strong, clear sound. There are a lot of good
songs, not a weak one actually. And there are some powerful lyrics.
But …"

But … You knew it was coming. Even the man SF Weekly predicted
would be remembered as "[the decade's] greatest songwriter" has his
doubts about what may be his band’s most triumphant hour.

"I miss the diversity," finishes Barlow, referring to the days
of "Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock (1992) and "Bubble And Scrape"
(1993), when Sebadoh (performing two shows tomorrow night at the
Roxy) featured three prolific songwriters and not two.

The missing link this time around is Eric Gaffney, Barlow’s
partner in crime from the very beginning (singer-songwriter and
multi-instrumentalist Jason Loewenstein, still with the band, came
on board later). The two came together under the name of Sentridoh,
churning out low-fi recordings taped in Barlow’s bedroom, and then
selling them to hip record stores in their native
Massachusetts.

Not since Lennon and McCartney had two such dissimilar talents
occupied the same space. Even as late as last year, the differences
between the two couldn’t have been more pronounced. While Barlow,
the more disciplined songwriter of the two, displayed his folk rock
leanings to great effect on beautiful tracks like "Soul And Fire,"
Gaffney pretty much stuck to his tried-and-true practice of
improvising in the studio and turning the resulting chaos ­
not always successfully ­ into a completed song.

Gaffney, who had left and rejoined the band pretty much at
random over the course of the band’s seven year history, bowed out
once again in the spring of this year. But accolades of "the
kindest drifter you’ll ever meet" (as Gaffney dubbed himself on his
song "Telescopic Alchemy") shouldn’t place all their hopes on
Gaffney being allowed back into the fold.

Barlow, when asked if he’d let Gaffney rejoin Sebadoh of he
begged for forgiveness, categorically answered in the negative -
you can tell it’s still a touchy subject. "There’s really only so
much you can take," he says wearily, crediting the two’s friction
to unresolved rivalries that began when they were younger. "It
really comes down to jealousy," Barlow says. "If Eric could find a
way to throw a monkey wrench into the works, he’d do it."

Past interviews with Gaffney bear his statement out: "It’s
really obvious people are going to be into us because of Lou," he
told Request Magazine last year. "There’s no doubt about it, the
guy can write a song. What I focus on is putting the rock ‘n’ roll,
abrasive edge into things." When asked by Net Magazine about a
typically out-there contribution to "Bubble And Scrape," he
replied, "Maybe that’s there to mess with anybody who wants a
cohesive album, from song to song."

This time, however, Gaffney wasn’t around to flick flies in the
ointment, and no matter how much Barlow may modestly deny it, the
new "Bakesale" takes Sebadoh’s art a quantum leap in the right
direction: tight, well-constructed tunes from both Barlow and
Loewenstein; sprung, exciting rhythms courtesy of new drummer Bob
Fay; and intriguing, almost "poetic" lyrics make this the strongest
indie-rock outing of an already stellar year.

One of the new songs, Barlow’s "Magnet’s Coil," actually
addresses the tension in Gaffney and Barlow’s partnership: "And if
you turn back just to fuck me / I’ll cut you loose and watch you
fall / It feels good just to bitch about it / Scratch that itch
until it bleeds," he sings in his delicate tenor, without the
slightest hint of bitterness or anger, which makes the chorus’s tag
lines, "But I don’t really want to lose you…you never say what’s
on your mind" all that more poignant of a plea for
communication.

In this respect, Barlow’s approach to songwriting has little to
do with his indie-rock peers than he does with the folk troubadours
of two decades past, writing primarily from his own personal
experience. Many of his earlier compositions, like "The Freed Pig,"
were poison pen letters directed at J Mascis, who kicked him out of
the group Dinosaur, precursor to its current "Jr" version. When the
relationship between him and his long-time girlfriend Kathleen
began to crumble, he wrote "Soul And Fire" and "Two Days Two
Years," two of the most vulnerable and painful breakup songs of the
decade. The songs proved so powerful that when she saw Barlow
perform the songs live, she had a change of heart and reconciled
their relationship.

Leading one to the obvious, age old question: "Do songwriters
write better when they’re in pain?" From John Lennon’s "Plastic Ono
Band" to Bob Dylan’s "Blood On the Tracks," the songs that haunt
the most always seem to be the ones that lay the turmoil of the
respective artist at their most naked. And at his best, Barlow has
certainly exposed some raw nerves.

"I’ve thought a lot about that," Barlow says, "And I’ve
certainly written some of my best songs in those circumstances. But
that’s really just a generalization, and it’s never really that
simple. I mean, ‘Songwriters write better when they’re in pain.’ Oh
that’s nice. That’s really something to look forward to!"

Sebadoh’s music, meanwhile, is certainly something to look
forward to, and if justice actually reigned over the airwaves and
sales charts, "Bakesale" would be the catalyst that would propel
the band into the spotlight. But though Barlow jokes that his band
is about "a third as popular as Pavement," lack of commercial
success doesn’t seem to bother him as much as being acknowledged
more universally as a mover and shaker. He even psychoanalyzes his
past dismissal of bohemian-rock legends the Velvet Underground as
being "overrated" as his way of countering his jealousy.

Ah, the perfectionist’s quintessential lament: "Why them instead
of me?" When reminded that Lou Reed wanted the same attention
thrust upon him in 1967, only to get it twenty-five years later, a
parallel is suggested: what if, two decades from now, the
commercial, conservative fodder that normally debuts at the top of
the Billboard chart recedes into a half-remembered memory? And what
if worthy bands like Sebadoh and Pavement finally get the credit
from rock history that today’s fickle record buying public never
gives?

Though you can’t possibly see a facial expression during a
telephone interview, you can almost feel Lou Barlow smile. "That
would be nice."

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