The term "indie rock" has seen its odometer flip so many times that its musical/sonic implications have long ago been superseded by its status as an aesthetic qualifier. Drop down a few rungs on the exposure ladder, and "lo-fi" could also be considered a meaningless tag. Both have enjoyed many media-generated "births" and "discoveries" yet both have been on relatively descending arcs since the debut Sebadoh album, The Freed Man, saw the light of day in 1986.
Primary Sebadoh personality Lou Barlow co-founded the most quintessential of quintessential indie-rock entities, Dinosaur Jr., way back in 1985 with guitarist J. Mascis and drummer Murph. Mascis delivered a pink slip to Barlow in 1988, followed by a mostly silent feud that ended with the commercially and creatively successful 2005 reunion of Dinosaur Jr.'s original lineup. The Mascis-Barlow relationship has always been good rock-critic fodder, but the focus on it has tended to obscure the unique and truly great body of work Barlow crafted with Sebadoh, despite that band's popularity within the confines of the alternative/indie-rock world of its time or the more recent favor shown toward the band's '90s output.
On the surface, Sebadoh made a major contribution to defining both the indie-rock and lo-fi sounds of the '90s — including recording the first and possibly best-known send-up of the still very insular genre way back in 1991 (the single "Gimme Indie Rock!"). It's not hard to imagine a revisionist history of the '90s in which Tascam or Fostex award Barlow his own signature analogue cassette four-track recorder, or at least give him a percentage of royalties on sales of existing models. Along with Guided By Voices ringleader Robert Pollard, Barlow helped solidify the initial image (and trend) of one person creating fully formed and release-worthy indie rock in the comfort of home with limited technical means.
But this is only applicable for the first phase of Sebadoh releases. The transition into full-band trio format came with 1991's epic III. The albums that preceded III, The Freed Man and 1988's Weed Forestin' (note: not a pot reference), both released by Homestead Records, are thick with Barlow's succinct song structures (most are under two minutes), minimal acoustic guitar and occasional ukulele, and consistently beautiful hooks. Though of immense influence on the coming decade and regarded as a favorite period by a sizable chunk of the Sebadoh fanbase, the electrified three-piece version traversed the '90s behind a discography that continues to transcend what is considered the indie-rock landscape year after year.
Leaving the increasingly unstable Homestead for Sub Pop in 1992, Sebadoh (Barlow with Eric Gaffney and Jason Lowenstein) combined the content of two previously released EPs (in the U.K. on the Domino label) to make up the Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock LP. In stark contrast to the naked emotion and quiet dynamics of The Freed Man, Weed Forestin', and much of III, Smash Your Head features some of the heaviest and most bombastic music to fall under the indie-rock umbrella of the era. And the pummeling pop of "It's So Hard To Fall in Love" and "Brand New Love" was some of the catchiest. Distinguished by a singular mix of noise and melody that would not be revisited by the trio, Sebadoh's Sub Pop debut sadly remains in the shadow of the three-album stretch that was to commence in 1993 with the more accessible Bubble and Scrape. Embraced as a critical and fan-preferred touchstone, it was this album that was performed in its entirety at the London-held All Tomorrow's Parties festival in May 2008 and the 2008 Pitchfork Festival later that summer.
But it's on 1994's Bakesale where Sebadoh deliver their finest and most timeless set of songs. Reissued this year (also by Sub Pop), the best Sebadoh record originally appeared just as indie rock was starting to experience an aesthetic backlash that would last until the second half of the '00s, when the retro-cycle started to dial up an interest (and for some, nostalgia) for the '90s. The soundtrack to said backlash was "post-rock," electronica, underground hip-hop, and more ambient, structureless statements emerging from a collective mindset that had more or less evolved from that of indie rock. Bakesale's off-kilter noise-pop was charmingly gorgeous indie-done-straight. Soon after its release, Barlow's side project, the Folk Implosion, provided much of the soundtrack for Larry Clark and Harmony Korine's now-legendary film Kids, which resulted in the song "Natural One" taking off as a surprise runaway hit.
Sebadoh returned in 1996 with Harmacy, a subtler affair with some high points and in no way a "bad" record, but it was nowhere near the ride that its predecessor provided. It would be three years before the next and final proper album from Sebadoh, 1999's The Sebadoh, one of the best swan songs of the decade.
The Sebadoh is still somewhat overlooked next to the band's other full-lengths, though it happens to be the only title in the discography with major-label backing (Sub Pop had a production and distribution deal with Sire Records at this point). Sebadoh then went on a recording hiatus, though they have reunited three times, including this Saturday's performance at the Hi-Tone by the band's original lineup. In a live setting, Barlow was the best part of the Dinosaur Jr. reunion campaign that launched in 2005, and something tells me that this round of Sebadoh reunion shows will be anything but a seminal band phoning it in.
Sebadoh, with Mazes and Perfect Vessels
Saturday, November 5th
9 p.m.; $12-$15