A dollar stretches a lot further in the studio today than it did in 1993. Inexpensive home recording used to wear marks of decay due to the flaws built into the physical process of making and reproducing a tape. Now, hiss, crackles, and pops are no longer a question of price, but aesthetic. How clean you want your record to feel is up to you. For Lou Barlow in 2013, that’s pretty clean. His first LP with Sebadoh since 1999 approaches the quality of production that major label records paid for when he was still putting his first sketches down to tape. Technically, it’s still a DIY release coming into the world through an independent label. “We did Defend Yourself the only way it could have been done: on the cheap and all by ourselves,” said Barlow via press release. It doesn’t sound cheap, and at points, it doesn’t really sound like Sebadoh. Defend Yourself catches Barlow at a place that’s split neatly between deep contemplation and clumsy rage.
As one of the self-described “uncles of indie rock,” Barlow has reached a point where he’s looking more back than forward. Like the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, he just split from a partner of multiple decades. Both Defend Yourself and the Lips’ 13th album, The Terror, were born from the ashes of a longterm relationship, but while Coyne used his breakup as fuel for general ruminations on life’s impermanence, Barlow filled his new album with songs specific enough to sound like they’re meant to be sung to a single person. Defend Yourself isn’t a philosophical excavation like The Terror. It’s a drama with a cast of characters.
By shaving Sebadoh of its scruff, Barlow, Jason Loewenstein, and Bob D’Amico narrow down their palette to the kind of alt rock sound that was popular around the time Sebadoh recorded The Sebadoh. Defend Yourself sounds clean and compact, but part of the fun of Bakesale-era Sebadoh was the space they left for themselves to flail around in, the ends they left frayed. The band kept up a real sense of accident back then. You could tell on some recordings that Barlow would never be able to bend his guitar down the same corners again, that everything hitting the tape was a one-off mistake. When everything did coalesce into a perfect melody, you could tell that Sebadoh had fought to get there.
That’s not to say that a 27-year-old Sebadoh should be expected to sound as raucous as the trio did at their peak. But about half of Defend Yourself affects an aggression that rings hollow inside the album’s compressed production. The worst offender, “Defend yr Self” blares like a misshapen hybrid of Mastodon and Incubus. “Why are you dumping me?” Lowenstein howls from the front. “Can’t you see that I’m small?” Then the track breaks to what sounds like a snippet of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”, and finally fades away and dies under some faint choral strokes. Later, ”State of Mine” rolls through on a bouncy twang like a greying, divorced cousin to Primus’s “Winona’s Big Brown Beaver”. The melody hints at humor, but the lyrics seem to come from a place of dread: “It’s the hardest thing I have done/ And I haven’t even done it yet.” By the end of the romp, Barlow concludes that “failure is a state of mind.” A band that always maintained a casual charm, Sebadoh has apparently been bottling up some melodrama.
But Defend Yourself balances its heavy-handed middle with the mellow introspection that Barlow displays on his solo records. There are moments of real loveliness here, especially in the album’s last few songs. On “Let it Out”, Barlow breathes a confessional whisper above a brisk acoustic strum and gaping cymbals. ”I didn’t want to say no to myself again/ I didn’t want to let you slip away,” he sings. ”Still, I’m holding on to whatever turns me on/ The promise of a new, familiar way.” It’s a stirring portrait of somebody learning to redefine himself as a romance that worked for 25 years start to break. Barlow sounds raw, vulnerable, and in perfect form all at once here, as he unspools the best lines of the album. “To be touched is to be real again.”
It’s worth noting that as a unit, the band sounds as locked-in as ever — maybe even more so than before. After all, none of these three ever took a break from music. They only took a break from Sebadoh, one that was never assumed to be permanent. Loewenstein’s bass sounds as solid and flexible as it ever has, while relative newcomer D’Amico keeps up a steady rattle. The band’s got Lou’s back. It’s the guitar and the lyrics that veer from great to awful, sometimes with no warning in between.
Defend Yourself is always reaching for the state of graceful aging achieved by fellow indie uncle Bob Mould with The Silver Age and Dinosaur Jr.’s latest, I Bet On Sky. When it falls, it’s awkward, but when it gets there, it gets there. The blunders are all Sebadoh, but so are the gems.
Essential Tracks: “I Will”, “Let it Out”, “Listen”
Editor’s Note: Fixed credit in fourth paragraph.