Tag Archives: Harmacy

Sebadoh @ Dingwalls, Camden, 04/11/14

Until yesterday the only Lou Barlow gig I’d ever been to was a New Folk Implosion show at Reading 2001 where the trio played mostly older songs (Dare to be Surprised-era stuff). It was great, and it was a surprise to me how bloodless the New Folk Implosion’s record was. So I was looking forward to Sebadoh, but with no real expectations. They’re not young guys anymore. They never really were about reaching out and trying to convert a young, mass audience, and anyway, I’m more than aware of their reputation in the 1990s for being shambolic and inconsistent, albeit with the potential to suddenly transcend their limitations and become spellbinding. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and I was cool with that,

So the first half of the set was a surprise. The frequent swapping of guitar, bass and lead vocals that Barlow and Loewenstein have always had to do at Sebadoh shows has been replaced by extended mini sets, with each songwriter taking six or seven tunes in a row before passing off to the other. At the beginning of the gig, with Barlow stage right at the lead vocal mic, guitar in hand, the band tore through their songs without pausing for breath, heavy on tunes from Bakesale and Harmacy, with a few highlights from new record Defend Yourself (such as album opener I Will).

During Loewenstein’s turn at the mic (even heavier on Bakesale tunes – Careful, Not Too Amused, Shit Soup and Drama Mine all appearing), though, the evening lost its focus. The tuner pedal the bass was plugged into began playing up, a fact which the band and the sound engineer struggled to diagnose for several songs, and Loewenstein abandoned the set list (literally crumpling it up and throwing it away). The band played the rest of the show off the top of their heads, taking requests, swapping guitars and retuning them more frequently, and doodling between songs. They did it in such good humour that they mostly got away with it – that Loewentsein gives good stage patter didn’t surprise me much, but Barlow’s levity was more unexpected – but the pace of the set slowed noticeably and my attention began to wander at times.

Dingwalls is a good venue for them: small enough to be sold out and buzzing, big enough to feel like a for-real gig. The group are pretty well preserved — despite Barlow’s current resemblance, pointed out by my friend Sara, to Jerry Garcia, all curly mop and facial hair and glasses — and played with a level of power and commitment that many younger bands would struggle to emulate. Sebadoh in the 1990s, with the erratic Eric Gaffney and then the barely competent Bob Fay behind the drums, couldn’t play their way out of a paper bag, but with Barlow an improved guitarist and always a solid bass player, Loewenstein competent at any instrument he turns his hand to, and new drummer Bob D’Amico a hard-hitting, no bullshit rock drummer, the latest line-up of Sebadoh was tight and powerful, and far, far louder than I’d been primed for.

I don’t want to be one of those guys always moaning about sound, but it would be nice if more live sound engineers worked from the vocals downwards – as in, if the vocals are this volume, how loud can the drums be without stepping on them? As opposed to, how loud can I make the drums and guitars while still having the vocals be just about perceptible? Indie rock is not blessed with many talented vocalists, but Barlow is one of them. It was a shame his voice was often so hard to discern. As it was, my ears are still ringing from the harsh cymbals and guitar sound, 24 hours after the show ended. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have worried. Nowadays, I curse myself for not having taken earplugs. Yet this was not a balanced mix that happened to be loud, so it’s not just me being a fuddy-duddy; the drums and guitars were too loud.

A bigger issue, and one that I feel like a bit of a heel bringing up, is that Lou did comparatively few of the songs I most wanted to hear. He’s been forthcoming in interviews and in song about the end of his marriage, and given that the majority of the songs I talk about (if not all of them) are love songs to his ex, I can see why he might prefer the bouncier or more aggressive songs from his archive right now, but Beauty of the Ride and Too Pure did hint at what the gig might have been if we’d had just a little more Soul and Fire, so to speak.

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Sebadoh, July 2014: l-r D’Amico, Loewenstein, Barlow

 

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Sebadoh

Yesterday I picked up tickets for Sebadoh’s London show later this year. I’ve never seen them before and Lou Barlow was and remains a pretty major influence on me as a musician, so I’m fairly psyched about this. I caught the New Folk Implosion line-up at Reading in 2001 and they were really good, but that’s the only Barlow-related gig I’ve ever seen. The ‘Doh pulled out of Glastonbury 1999 (as did Elliott Smith, curse my luck), which was the only previous time I was going to see them. I avoided the resissue-promo/nostalgia tours. So this is it. Jason Loewenstein, new drummer Bob D’Amico and Lou Barlow, at Dingwalls. Yeah, looking forward to it.

So I’ve been listening to Sebadoh since Thursday, more than I have in a long, long time.

When I’ve been listening to an artist for a long time, eventually I stop wanting great albums and grand statements from them. There comes a point where I know what I think of them, I feel like I’ve got a good handle on their catalogue and all I really need with each new record is one or two songs that stand comparison with their best work. That’s all: a couple of songs to add an iTunes playlist. Barlow’s solo debut, Emoh, gave me Legendary, a better version of Morning’s After Me (the original was from the Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel multi-artist concept/compilation album) and Holding Back the Year. Thanks, Lou. On to the next one. Goodnight Unknown had The Right and The One I Call. Yeah, he’s still got it.

Once you’re in this mindset, it changes the way you hear the back catalogue. You get less concerned with creating lists and taxonomies and Top 5s, and more with the overall shape of an artist’s career. You become aware, perhaps, that there are different accomplishments in music. I reckon Barlow’s one of the best songwriters of the last 25 years or so. He’s probably never written a genuinely great song (a Heard It Through the Grapevine, a Strawberry Fields Forever, a Someone to Watch Over Me – something of that calibre), but he’s written dozens of really good ones. I’m not sure whether that’s a greater achievement than managing to focus all your talent into one flawless song. The pop fan in me says it isn’t; the rock fan says it is. No surprise there.

If he ever made a great album, I think it’s the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby, a sorely underrated record I’ve talked about here before. The nature of Sebadoh as a band, with its shifting line-ups and sometimes strained attempts to run itself as a democracy, always made it unlikely that they ever would make a sustained, consistent and great work of art. Lou was too likely to mawkishly overshare or indulge in another anti-Mascis rant; Eric Gaffney was too likely to come unglued (working out what distinguishes a good Gaffney song from a bad one is an entertaining, hilariously difficult enterprise) and unleash an Elixir is Zog rather than an Emma Get Wild.

For me, and I think many long-time fans, this is the point of the band. Barlow’s songs don’t work without Gaffney’s, or Loewenstein’s. Repeat sentence, change the order the names appear in. Listening to the band is like listening to the White Album writ large; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the best stuff is made better by rubbing shoulders with the questionable.

But still, somefans are strangely apt to respond positively to one small era of the band’s history and disregard the rest. III is the oft-cited early 1990s lo-fi sprawlathon that launched a thousand home-taping imitations; Bubble & Scrape the last hurrah of the Gaffney era; Bakesale where the band turned up the drive on the guitars and Jason matured into a songwriter capable of providing an energetic, humorously aggressive foil to Barlow. But these fans, whether they champion III, Bubble and Scrape, Bakesale or, in those rare cases, Harmacy, will all agree that The Sebadoh was a stinker (I actually like it a lot), and they’ll usually have little time for what came after/before their favoured era, sometimes repudiating it entirely. The band have achieved elder-statesmen status now so the consensus opinion is mellowing a little, but 10 years ago there were a lot of former ‘Doh fans who didn’t want Barlow around reminding them of the confused awkward teenager they used to be when they listened to this stuff.

For me, that’s not what this band was about. If you like Sebadoh, how can you not appreciate Jason Loewenstein, who’s been a far more effective long-term foil to Barlow than Gaffney ever was? A punk-rock kind of guy with a useful sideline in smoky ballads, latter-day band recording engineer and all-round decent dude, Loewenstein got stronger and stronger as the band went on. There’s no one record containing top-level work from the three principal songwriters who have been members, either because they weren’t in the band at the time, or because they had only just joined, or because they were just a kid drafted in at a moment’s notice. Many things made Sebadoh great, not all of them present at the same time, and so there’s no defining Sebadoh record, and neither is there a best one.

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Early Sebadoh: l-r Eric Gaffney, Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein

One Part Lullaby – The Folk Implosion

I’ve covered Lou Barlow here before. I’ve covered Wally Gagel’s Production Club project too. But I’ve been pulled back to One Part Lullaby by Barlow’s Folk Implosion project this week, and I just can’t leave it alone. It’s a record I’ve come back to time and again since it was released 15 years ago.

One Part Lullaby came out in the autumn of 1999 and crowned a productive year for Barlow, which began with the release of The Sebadoh, probably the most divisive Sebadoh album. Clean-sounding and focused, it was a long way from Weed Forrestin’. In the robotic, repetitive Flame, the band had a hit single. They even appeared on Top of the Pops. Long-time fans complained, as some had with every release, that they just weren’t the same band that had given us Total Peace in 1991 or Elixir is Zog in 1993. Which was perfectly true – with Eric Gaffney gone and Barlow now concerned with structure and consistency, the band no longer knocked out scrappy little gems that sounded like rough demos for a hit single some other band might be able to make. But then, neither did they produce excrescence like Downmind or Bouquet for a Siren. The Sebadoh might have been just a collection of a dozen mid-tempo, medium-intensity rock songs with an acoustic ballad or two for a modicum of variety, but most of the songs were great. That made up for a lot in my world.

Then came One Part Lullaby, a record that was an artistic triumph and a crushing commercial disappointment.

One Part Lullaby is brightly mixed, astutely arranged and full of hooks. Almost every song has a melody that sticks. On its shiny surface, it’s the pop record that Lou Barlow always had in him if he wanted to focus on craft and delivery and make best use of his collaborators. Yet, listening to it, you’re left with the distinct impression that all is not perfect in Barlow’s yard.

My good time, I feel all right
My ritual followed us to paradise
My blood moves, I feel all right
Don’t touch me ’cause you’re still too much to feel tonight

My Ritual

I can’t be trusted, I’m dust in the wind
I let the weather decide where my day begins
I’m not a rebel of the natural one
I’m in love with the chemical
Following the setting sun

Lost my patience
All that it takes to survive
Watching my mind and my body divide
Why live for a future that never arrives on time?

Leaving heaven below
Go wherever the angels follow

One Part Lullaby

There’s a lysergic undertone to many of the lyrics on the album, and a sense of torpor that feels unnatural, narcotic. All of which is undercut by music that is more intricate, multi-layered and pulling in more directions than anything else Barlow’s ever been involved with, which thrums with the creative energy of two bandmates (Barlow and John Davis) and a producer (Wally Gagel) working at the top of their games.

Were these lyrics meant to be read metaphorically? Were they an attempt to convey actual experience? Were they confessional? An observation of another’s experiences? Who can say?*

Since the success of Natural One (from the soundtrack to the Larry Clark film, Kids), the Folk Implosion had always been a rhythm section-led band and, since their drums came from machines and loops, a bass-led band. Barlow has never claimed to be a great musician, yet he’d developed into an excellent bass player: stripped of the distortion he often used with Sebadoh and Dinsoaur Jr, his lines were revealed as tight and fluid, with power in the low end and definition when he played in higher ranges. A good percentage of the songs seem to have been built from the bass up (My Ritual, Gravity Decides, Merry-Go-Down, No Need to Worry, maybe Kingdom of Lies) and where they that hadn’t been, he inhabits them in ways stylistically of a piece, but without overwhelming them or getting in the way.

Davis, meanwhile, adds sprinklings of acoustic and electric guitar, little counterpoint things (see the second verse of My Ritual), fat lead riffs (again, My Ritual, but also the fuzzy hook on Free to Go and the lead riff on Kingdom of Lies, which is a longstanding favourite of mine), and big layers of all of the above (Someone You Love).

It’s the most closely and successfully that Barlow and a collaborator have worked together, but they had a sympathetic producer too, in Wally Gagel, who had also produced the Dare to be Surprised in 1997, and parts of Sebadoh’s Harmacy. Gagel gives a wide-ranging set songs a recognisable sonic imprint, a big bottom end, lots of focus in the crucial, and sometimes congested mid-range, and a pronounced top end, which suggested a bid for radio success – as did the crass mastering job from Steven Marcussen, which undid a lot of Gagel’s good work. It doesn’t ruin the record, but it’s a shame so many of the prominently mixed drum tracks lose their punch through having been square-waved.

It could have been a big hit record, albeit one that was a little out of step with the types of records that actually were being hits. Maybe if they’d made this in 1997 rather than the spare, often goofy (but very charming) Dare to be Surprised it would have been a big hit. As it was, it was reviewed positively (certainly in Britain) but went nowhere commercially. It sold 20,000 fewer than Surprised had**, which thrilled new label Interscope not a bit. Davis left the band, according to Barlow, as soon as the record was released. Their next album, as the New Folk Implosion, was muted and monochrome, with Imaad Wasif and Russ Pollard filling in for Davis and the drum machine respectively. I saw them in 2001 and they were actually really great, but songs from One Part Lullaby, too layered to be recreated on stage by three musicians (and possibly not Barlow’s favourite bunch after the record had stiffed), were notable by their absence.

One Part Lullaby is a deceptively troubled record, one more substantial than it might initially appear, then. Many of my favourite records from my late teens have paled for me in the intervening years. How could Dog Leap Stairs remain a touchstone once you’ve heard Blue, Paul Simon, and Judee Sill? But One Part Lullaby is still a favourite, not just because it’s a collection of really good songs (and a really good collection of songs, which is not the same thing at all), but because nothing else in my record collection sounds like it, combining early eighties new wave with hip-hop-derived rhythm tracks and singer-songwriter lyrics and chord changes. Whether or not it actually was one part lullaby to two parts fear, it was the right mix.

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Folk Implosion – John Davis (top), Lou Barlow (bottom)

* Doing some research and background reading for this post, but after having written the early paragraphs, I came across this quote from Barlow on the forum he maintains (loobiecore): “John had some very serious mental health issues.. nuff said.. and i was more or less a drug addict.”

** Again, from Barlow’s forum:  “The previous album ‘dare to be surprised’ outsold it by about 20,000 copies”. On another thread he’s more specific: “Dare to be surprised actually outsold it 2:1 (dtbs sold about 50,000, amazing to think of now). When i started working on a follow up to OPL the label (interscope) dropped me when they heard the songs.”