September 17, 2013

Test Spins: Sebadoh, Defend Yourself

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After fourteen years of silence, lo-fi legends Sebadoh have returned with Defend Yourself, a nostalgic call-back to their years of fuzzy 1990s glory. This seems to be the banner decade for unlikely 90s comebacks; 2012 saw new records from the Cranberries and Garbage, while 2013 has brought new material from The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and The Dismemberment Plan.

Sebadoh seems to be pretending that their last, universally panned album, 1999′s The Sebadoh, never happened. Defend Yourself forgoes obnoxious overproduction and shows a band looking to return to its grungey roots. The album was recorded primarily live and entirely to tape in an attempt to recall the band’s early punk sensibilities. It’s a valiant effort, but if Sebadoh were looking to recreate their past, Defend Yourself is just a little too shiny. It’s a pretty great album, but it’s a little hard to believe Barlow as he sings “I’m still the same” on the opening track, “I Will.” Maturity, experience and a couple of Dinosaur Jr. albums have rendered Barlow incapable of returning to the stripped-down heartache of 1994′s Bakesale. That’s not to say that Defend Yourself is anything other than an excellent album. At times, however, Sebadoh tries just a little too hard to compensate for their disappointing later albums in the late 90s.

The pain on Defend Yourself seems more directed than the aimless angst the band churned out in their 20s. Early Sebadoh thrived on general, existential dissatisfaction with lyrics like “my words are limp and my mind is dry / I try to be polite but I feel like I’m stuck for life” from Bakesale’s gorgeous “Not A Friend.” On “State of Mine,” one of the best tracks on Defend Yourself, Barlow seems to be referencing specific painful episodes, singing of “another kind of classroom” and “another door to shout through.” In typical Sebadoh way, Barlow’s emotional strife (“failure is a state of mine”) is paired with a buoyant bassline and urgent percussion. The punkiest song on the record, “Separate,” follows a similar formula. It makes sense that Barlow is clinging to the past; Sebadoh’s return comes after the end of his 25-year marriage. Defend Yourself, like any good Sebadoh album, mixes misery with rage, heartache with grit, vital beauty with desperation.