Over the last decade, Lou Barlow's band Sebadoh has become synonymous with the type of heartsickness that usually motivates folks to climb out onto building ledges. With his steady, dark singing and open-wound lyrical style, Barlow has made lo-fi whining a genre unto itself -- a genre that's now, alas, filled to its tear-stained gills.
At the same time, Sebadoh guitarist Jason Lowenstein has raised his profile in the band, becoming its wilder, more intemperate singer and lyricist. The trouble is, though, that Lowenstein's aggressive songs have always seemed like lunkish cousins of Barlow's gilded reveries.
That is, until now. The two singer/songwriters have finally reached a balance with The Sebadoh. Barlow has moved away from his detailed renderings of the human heart, choosing instead a more objective approach, while Lowenstein has tempered his frat-rock leanings and stepped back from his assertiveness. Other shifts include Barlow's cross-country move from Boston to Los Angeles, and the band dumping longtime drummer Bob Fay in favor of Lowenstein's Louisville pal Russ Pollard.
Fans of Lou Barlow's hangdog yearnings will find him in fine form with "Love Is Stronger," a soft, rambling tune that posits love's supremacy over just about everything, including the truth. In an uncharacteristic move, Barlow also sings about racism and hatred in "Color Blind," a wake-up call to a society indifferent to race issues. To a marching tempo and needlepoint guitars, Barlow takes snapshots of militia men, rioters, and hate groups, singing, "I wish we were color blind/ We could cure ourselves." The glossy, metronomic "Flame" is the album's treat, a song about life's changes with a sly breakdown and a carnival air.
While Jason Lowenstein remains the group's loose cannon, he's created some clear, resounding rock numbers. "Decide" has a rolling dissonance that makes a clearer musical case for his strong-willed dictums. "I made a mistake/ Trusting you with what I make," he sings in a rushing wind tunnel of guitars. His "Cuban" gives lo-fi a different perspective, with dirty basement rock that moves the clanky drums and percussion to the front of the mix.
On The Sebadoh, America's favorite indie band has renovated its old digs, raising the ceilings and putting in a few skylights. Like most home-improvement projects, it still has some rough edges. But now there's a lot more space to move around in.
-- Lois Maffeo
Never Say Goodbye
When Roky Erickson sings, "Don't drive yourself past living," he knows something we don't. His fragile psyche damaged by psychedelic drugs during his time in the legendary mid-'60s acid-rock innovators the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson sings as though he's grappling to understand the world.
The singer/guitarist spent the years after the Elevators' 1968 demise (the band scored only one hit, the jug-driven anthem "You're Gonna Miss Me") in and out of mental hospitals following an arrest for marijuana possession. Today, he survives in the care of family and friends, living in a roadside shack outside of Austin, Texas.
Erickson's solo career has also been marred by bad business deals and frequent bootlegging of his material; by the mid-'80s, he had essentially quit recording and performing. The few songs to surface since his retirement add to his mystique of schizophrenic insight and innocence. The dusty and fragmented song sketches on Never Say Goodbye were captured on a portable recorder, mostly in 1971 (during his incarceration at Rusk State Hospital) and at home in 1974. Erickson conveys a childlike sensitivity on these previously unreleased, mostly unaccompanied acoustic recordings, which predate the paranoid visions of aliens and demons that populate his later work.
Although the album's 14 songs are of compromised fidelity, their sound is no less charming than early Guided by Voices recordings. Smudged by tape dropouts, but clear and evocative in its honesty, "Be and Bring Me Home" sets a warbling acoustic guitar tone beneath Erickson's boisterous wail: "Suddenly I may control/ Take little things meaning big so's I'm not alone/ Suddenly I'm not sick/ Won't you be and bring me home?" Elsewhere, "Birds'd Crash" flutters with repetitive minor-to-major chord shifts and Erickson's nursery rhyme incantation: "We're here, I'm here/ And it's gonna last/ Thinking they had to, birds'd crash."
On "Think of as One," a phantom acoustic guitar prances in the distance as Erickson implores us to comprehend his vision of oneness: "Your living is my music/ Think of as ours/ Think of as all." His earnest and innocent declarations seem to speak for a mind that knows us all.
-- Dave Clifford