Sebadoh | REWIG33 | Released: 24/06/07
In 1987, Lou Barlow was bassist for Dinosaur Jr, an underground rock trio from Amherst, Massachusetts who, in their own inimitably hazy way, stirred up a hurricane of ragged, glorious noise that drew influence from country music, classic rock, and psychedelia, placing those sounds and elements within a most electrifying post-punk context. Their second album, that year's You're Living All Over Me, marked more than just the blossoming of their sound into a riot of cracked vocals, flaming sludge guitar and a playful sense of studio experimentation that placed Barlow's melodic bass playing high in the mix; the album also saw Barlow step up to the songwriting plate.
The bassist had sung guitarist J Mascis's words and melodies on several tracks off their self-titled debut, but Dinosaur's second closed out with a track composed and recorded entirely by Barlow. The haunting, home-made cut-up Poledo, juxtaposing a ghostly lament strummed and sung by Barlow with blasts of noise, drone and found sounds, was the fruit of Lou's tinkering with his beloved 4-track tape recorder, the latest incarnation of a fascination with recording and sound that stretched back to his youth.
"When I was a kid, my parents bought me one of the first cheap tape recorders," he remembers, "And my cousin showed me that if you half-press the 'ffw' and 'record' buttons and yell into the mic, it'll make this stretched out groaning sound. That cracked me up! He'd yell "We're gonna beat the crap out of Louieeeee" and would keep playing it at me."
Aged twelve, Lou's tapedeck experiments had extended to primitive multi-tracking, recording himself on acoustic guitar and singing. It was a habit he never grew out of. Having discovered the joys of pot-smoking shortly before recording began on You're Living All Over Me, Barlow would listen back to the sessions in a weed fug, "and everything sounded wonderful". Emboldened by a newfound (and short-lived) sense of harmony within the fractious group, Barlow offered Poledo, which he regarded as the perfect "bullshit freakout track", their Revolution #9 to close out what he saw as Dinosaur's "psychedelic rock record".
"On my way to the Amherst Hanging House / There'll be pot and beer / Here" - "Amerst Hanging House"
In 1987, Eric Gaffney was a pizza delivery driver and radio DJ living in Massachusetts with a history of playing in rock bands, editing his own 'zine, Withdrawal, and writing scene reports for legendary punk and hardcore inkie/bible Maximum Rock'n'Roll. The year before, he'd recorded a 90 minute cassette of music recorded by The Gracefully Ageing Hippy Soloists, a duo of electric guitar and drums he'd formed with school friend Charles Ondras, live recordings which he sold to local record stores.
Cassette culture, a logical offshoot of the same spurt of pent up, adrenalised energy that had thrown up America's hardcore scene, and its accompanying litany of cheaply produced fanzines and seven inch singles, was thriving in the US, with the advent of affordable cassette-to-cassette recorders. While the record industry stamped their increasingly-bland, over-produced product with skull 'n' crossbones threats against the insurgent black market of pirated recordings, the truth spoken by this particular underground was that home-taping was saving music.
Barlow and Gaffney had crossed paths, and Gaffney had booked a series of local shows for Sentridoh, which featured Barlow on ukulele and vocals, performing his songs with Gaffney accompanying on percussion. Barlow had begun recording more material of his own by himself, not intending them for Dinosaur consumption. Morale within the band fading, Barlow had suffered a crisis of confidence in comparison to his ferociously talented bandmate, and lacked the courage to bring his music to the band. There was an outlet, however.
"I realised I could record my own music, copy it onto cassettes and sell it through local record stores," he recalls, "I did it for myself, primarily, but also with the understanding that other people would find it. The chaotic nature, the swings from quiet to loud, the punk and folky stuff. It immediately made sense to some people, like Eric."
1988 saw Gaffney and Barlow working on the 4 track, solo and in collaboration, for the tracks which would make up The Freed Man, the first cassette release by Sebadoh, their newly formed group. That Summer, the duo selected and compiled the thirty minute cassette, a clutch of lo-fi, intimate, delicately twisted songcraft and dizzying, perplexing experimentation.
"Eric and I thought, 'We gotta get stuff to put inbetween the songs!' laughs Barlow. 'So we'd go out with a walkman to the supermarket and record ambient stuff, and put it in the four track and layer stuff over it. Just to make each other laugh. Some of that stuff was scary."
The title of the cassette was symbolic of the tensions within Dinosaur, a group which was becoming increasingly unsound. Barlow wrote no songs for the group's final album, 1988's Bug. Angst clouded the sessions, to which Barlow - eager to escape the studio - contributed only basslines, and vocal to "Don't", which Mascis made him scream until his throat was torn. Barlow exited the group soon afterwards, a man freed.
"By no means should you take any of this seriously" - Last Day Of School
It cannot be denied that Barlow and Gaffney made the very most they could of the democratic, anarchic freedom offered by the home-recording format. Fuelled my a desire to impress the other, the duo were endlessly, radically inventive, packing the cassette with fragments of brilliantly unique songwriting, and passages of sonic intrigue, all marked by a deliciously stoned, playful, restless sensibility.
Covered in Dr Seuss artwork, the cassette sold in local record stores for a dollar. The duo sent copies to Sonic Youth and to Gerard Cosloy, who wrote glowingly of it in his Conflict zine, signing the group to a three album deal with his indie label, Homestead. The tracks were reconstituted and The Freed Man was released to the world on vinyl, where the nascent lo-fi generation soon lost themselves in its haze of fitful invention and goofy, unique humour. And now, following Domino's expanded release of the group's III album last year, this deluxe release of The Freed Man recompiles those original tracks with further contemporaneous songs, noise and abstraction. This doesn't dilute the original, it deepens the experience, expanding the album's horizons.
Mirthful non sequiteurs rubbed shoulders with moments of rare poignancy on The Freed Man, as moments of introspective, intimate folk were interrupted by disembodied voices stolen from television, elliptical and hypnotic looped fragments, and blasts of fuzzy electric punk mess. While they would expand upon and refine the ideas put forth in this album over their later releases, the essence of everything that made Sebadoh so special can be found in the highest concentration on this release. Rejecting the underground rock that they found increasingly macho and empty, Sebadoh pioneered a new kind of hardcore, penning lyrics of such unadorned, unselfconscious honesty that they chilled and moved, examining the darker edges of their own morality, celebrating the loose, fucked-up chaos of their twenty-something lives. That same honesty could also yield love songs of a heady sweetness, like the Summery headrush of K-Sensa-My. Of course, the casual, almost accidental contrast was part of the appeal.
The Freed Man was one of the first and most crucial releases in the burgeoning lo-fi movement, which would peak in media attention in the mid 1990s with the success of Beck, Guided By Voices and Sebadoh themselves. But while it helped inspire and define a global movement, you will struggle to trace such an ambition within these tracks. Sebadoh in this incarnation are a cherishably intimate experience, the seventy odd minutes of wayward, crazy-paved brilliance collected here offering the listener the rare and recommended opportunity to transport themselves to the weed-hazed bedroom where these scraps and songs and pranks were recorded, to imbibe deeply of the haywire creativity that went on in these sessions.