By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Sebadoh's Lou Barlow is that increasingly common figure in late-'90s rock: an influential musician whose cultural status outweighs his (relatively modest) album sales. Sensitive and self-absorbed, Barlow is the post-Kurt decade's premier icon of seductive male sensitivity: What James Taylor was to '70s proto-yuppie folk and Robert Smith was to '80s gloom-pop, sweet Lou is to '90s indie rock. And if that lineage sounds like progress to you, well, it does to me, too. Taylor, you'll recall, embodied a solipsism with roots in the new openness of the sexual revolution without abandoning a distinctly pre-feminist form of masculinity, and Smith updated the androgynous come-ons of ye olde English glam rock. By comparison, Barlow reveals a more honest, postfeminist comfort with gender equality. He doesn't just detail his private agonies, but explores--even invents--a sense of his own complicity in the torments that beset him. Like any good liberated '90s boy, he acknowledges his own motives and machinations and comes clean long before his other has even begun to suspect trouble.
"Paranoia's contagious/I'm coming down with it too," Barlow warns a lover on "Weird," from the band's 10th album, The Sebadoh. "You'd better throw your trust on the fire first...before I do." Indie rock's best bard of relationship songs, Barlow seems driven not so much by the need for love and sex as the desire for meaningful communication, and his agonies usually stem from the gap between his desires and their near-unattainable fulfillment. On "Sorry," Barlow sings, "I want you to know it/But the more I say it, the less it means in the end."
Tender as that may be, it's songs--not sentiments--that help Barlow retain icon status, and The Sebadoh finds songwriter and partner Jason Loewenstein coming up a bit short. Compared to the indie-rock sugar rush of the band's last three records--particularly career best Bakesaleof 1994--The Sebadoh has a dearth of memorable tunes. This lack of hooks does not couple well with Lou's saccharine sentiments. Who would have thought a lo-fi dystopian like Barlow would resort to using a tree as a relationship metaphor ("We watered that tree and watched it grow...together")? Who does he think he is, Dan Fogelberg? Even James Taylor edited himself more assiduously than that. Equally cloying is the Tommy-era Who sound-alike "Colorblind," whose key lines, "black and white and beautiful/I wish we were colorblind/We could heal ourselves," offer an unbecoming, awkward stab at social commentary.
As for the younger, punkier Loewenstein, his usually tougher, shaggier songs dissolve into the mix in a way they haven't since he established himself as Barlow's near equal on 1993's Bubble and Scrape. Loewenstein wrote seven of The Sebadoh's 15 songs--with new drummer Russ Pollard contributing the passable "Break Free"--and Loewenstein's contributions seem peculiarly tossed-off here, especially when compared to his work on Bakesale, where the quasi-epic "Not Too Amused" established him as a first-rate songwriter.
With his noise-filled song nuggets and barely tuneful yelp, Loewenstein seems too married to the rule of Indieland, much unlike Barlow, whose warm, smooth voice and expansive love songs seem to light out for the pop landscape he explored on the Folk Implosion's fluke hit, "Natural One." Let's just hope he doesn't have to sacrifice the soul and fire he's long valued in order to get there.