Despite the prominence of band leader Lou Barlow (sometime bassist of Dinosaur Jr. and co-founder of Folk Implosion), Sebadoh can get some short shrift in the annals of lo-fi indie rock. But it’s kind of hard to stand out when you get put up alongside Pavement, Silver Jews, Superchunk, and the like. When you stand among big shadows, it’s possible to be under-appreciated, and sometimes it seems that’s what’s happened to Sebadoh. The ongoing reissues of some of the trio’s best albums should gain a bit more of the limelight that they deserve, and Bakesale is the newest installment in that series.
Originally released by Sub Pop in 1994, Bakesale was the group’s fifth album and their first after the departure of founding drummer Eric Gaffney. The album proved to be their biggest commercial breakthrough and was equally loved by critics, making many best-of-the-year lists. In retrospect, despite Sebadoh III and Bubble and Scrape getting more attention and more credit, Bakesale remains the band’s most enjoyable and consistent record. Recorded by Shellac’s Bob Weston, the disc features raucous energy, heartache courtesy of Barlow’s songwriting, as well as bassist (and future Fiery Furnace) Jason Loewenstein’s own songs, and a load of memorable hooks.
Much has been made of Gaffney’s departure and its impact on this record. The drummer’s volatility and eclecticism had been hallmarks of past Sebadoh records, so the switch to Bob Fay and the accompanying standardization of the band’s sound would seem to go hand in hand. The lo-fi warmth, crackling, and fuzz are all still there, but the palette is softened, and the focus is returned almost entirely onto the vocals, Barlow and Loewenstein wrapping their heartfelt lyrics in scratchy blankets of lo-fi rock. Altogether, there’s a messy sort of power in the same way that is trending through indie rock today.
Album opener “License to Confuse” rages on on slashing electric guitar and crashing bass, Barlow’s proudly effect-less drone topping off the mix. At their best, there’s something entirely effortless about the way that Sebadoh sounds, like they’re just strumming out in their garage, and that’s definitely the case here. “Careful” is Loewenstein’s first turn at the mic on the record, his vocals a bit more polished, emotional than Barlow’s. The harmonies polish things off even further, demonstrating a more controlled side. The duality of the two songwriters and vocalists is one that continues on throughout their work together, the two playing off of each other’s strengths.
Other treats from the original album include “Not Too Amused”, another Loewenstein track that treads along on a memorable chord progression and a typical 90’s indie melancholy vocal delivery, Loewenstein’s voice falling minor and low at the end of each line, wavering a bit. The lyrics are similarly downtrodden and self-deprecating on “Not a Friend”, Barlow admitting that he can’t forgive someone else, because he can’t trust himself, can’t forgive himself. Later, the happy moments of friendship on “Dreams” are realized to be just that, and everything is lost as Barlow opens his eyes.
The album’s first two singles, “Rebound” and “Skull”, were two of the band’s best. “Rebound” is credited to all three band members, the only song of that kind on the album. The tune is a pure blast of power-pop drenched in aching reverb. “Skull”, a Barlow song, opens slowly but pulses with energy as it builds in intensity. “Gently take my skull for a ride,” Barlow offers, emptying himself onto tape for the listener. “Magnet’s Coil”, “Not Too Amused”, and “Careful” would all get their own single releases in due time, as well.
The hardcore Sebadoh fan, though, will find an entire second disc of material worth buying this reissue for. There are some psychedelic and chaotic noise experiments (the burning, crushed “MOR Backlash”), four-track demos (of “Not a Friend”, “Mystery Man”, and others), acoustic versions (“Rebound”, “Magnet’s Coil”), as well as EP tracks and other rarities.
At this point in their career, Loewenstein and Barlow had found the perfect balance between their creative powers, and it shows quite brightly on Bakesale. To that end, any amount of extra proof that Sebadoh can dig up to prove that point should be welcomed happily.