Sebadoh | REWIG37 | Released: 04/05/08
Released roughly halfway through their recording career, Bubble & Scrape captured Sebadoh as a band in most profound transition. Since inception, Lou Barlow, Eric Gaffney and Jason Loewenstein had ever been more a wonderfully chaotic collective of individuals following their own erratic, crazy-paved paths than the typical, rigidly-defined group. All three wrote and sang their own songs, while live performances would play host to regular bouts of instrument-swapping, as one member stepped up to the microphone as the previous ‘frontman’ returned to the drumkit – stemming from Barlow’s desire that Sebadoh be an entirely democratic process, in contrast to his experiences as erstwhile bassist with Dinosaur Jr. Sebadoh’s early cassette releases, The Freed Man and Weed Forestin’, spanned a broad spectrum of radically-skewed ‘pop’, veering from introspective strum to out-there noise to found-sound collage with a stoner’s graceful stream-of-consciousness.
By the time Sebadoh wrote and recorded their fourth full-length in 1993, the three members were writing and singing in more confident and distinct voice than ever before. Contained within the two sides of Bubble & Scrape, those voices – Lou’s muted, emotive and disarmingly honest ballads, Jason’s increasingly rockular riff-outs, and Eric’s thrillingly genius psychotic squalls – formed a most beguiling harmony, complimenting and perfectly off-setting each other. Bubble & Scrape would also, however, prove to be Eric Gaffney’s final album with Sebadoh.
Lou Barlow had formed the group with Eric Gaffney back in 1986, while he was still bassist with Dinosaur Jr. Barlow was already self-recording his songs, as Sentridoh, releasing his music on home-recorded audio-cassette. “I realised I could record my own music, copy it onto cassettes and sell it through local record stores. 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.”
In 1987, Eric Gaffney was a pizza delivery driver and radio DJ living in Massachusetts, editing his own ‘zine, Withdrawal, and releasing cassettes by his group, The Gracefully Ageing Hippy Soloists, a duo he’d formed with school friend Charles Ondras. Gaffney had booked a series of local shows for Sentridoh, accompanying Barlow on percussion; soon, the first Sebadoh cassettes surfaced, enveloping listeners into their world of short-attention-span inspiration and introspective playfulness.
Jason ‘Jake’ Loewenstein, a teenaged musician and home-recorder who’d already purchased Sebadoh tapes, joined the group, and they began to tour, and recorded III, a sprawling and brilliant mess of ideas, wit and nervous melancholy, but also a step closer to the conventional album format from their earlier cassettes.
“It was all about freedom and democracy, this chaos,” explains Barlow. “I was thrilled to be doing it all, to be touring. We played England, and I was so excited - after Dinosaur, I never thought I’d be able to tour England again. The minute we got off the plane I was grabbing Jake, buying cider and getting shit-faced!”
Despite this bonhomie, however, Sebadoh’s loose collective was showing signs of critical fracture, Gaffney exiting the band several times and missing a number of tours, replaced by drummer Bob Fay. Gaffney returned to the fray in time for Bubble & Scrape, but the tensions which had precipitated his earlier exit remained. Symptomatically, Gaffney’s contributions to the album were shrieks of haywire brilliance, squalling and twisted blasts of freak-pop. ‘Elixir Is Zog’ thundered along like Sonic Youth at double speed, featuring searingly deranged yells of “Capricorn Rising!”; ‘Telecosmic Alchemy’ was the faintly disturbing tale of “the finest drifter you’ll ever hate”. Both songs hurtled at a distinct tangent to the output of the group’s other founder member.
If strong traces of Sebadoh’s chaotic past course through the slaloming tumult of Bubble & Scrape, then Lou Barlow’s songs offer a glimpse into the group’s immediate future, the more melodic and considered songcraft that would blossom through subsequent albums Bakesale, Harmacy and The Sebadoh. Barlow’s songs in the past had often essayed his emotions with an unflinching honesty (seemingly impervious to the embarrassment such confessions might invite); his material for this album retained the piercing lyrical insights, but allied them with tunes that resonated with a similar poignant ache as his words. The brittle chime of ‘Two Years Two Days’ mirrored the song’s paranoid pessimism, while the tentative and graceful chords of ‘Cliché’ perfectly suited Lou’s poetic dissembling of bong-frosted twenty-something idleness.
Lou mined his on-off relationship with Kathleen Bilius on the sublime ‘Soul & Fire’, a painfully exact chronicle of dying love which sinks the listener’s heart with its bittersweet melody, and a chorus of “I think our love is coming to an end” which spoke great heartbreak in simple, powerful words. A demo version included on this re-release rewrites the chorus with an affecting hopefulness, “Call me if you ever want to love again”.“It was just one of many songs I wrote to bully her into getting back with me,” laughs Lou now.
Never simply the lukewarm water between Eric’s fire and Lou’s ice, Jason’s contributions veered about the place with confidence, pitched somewhere between the atonal roar of Eric’s tracks, and Lou’s sensitive strums. The edgy and brooding acoustic waltz of ‘Happily Divided’ was the deft flipside to the charring proto-grunge of ‘Flood’, the riff-splaying monster lurking at the album’s close, Jake playing both with utter conviction.
Taken as a whole, Bubble & Scrape was a refinement of the ideas and approaches that had made the earlier Sebadoh releases so beguiling. Some of the rougher edges were smoothed out, confidence and craft replacing the more frenetic sketches of the past. The effect was that of a lens being pulled into focus, with just enough raw edge and soft haze to leave these songs with the frayed and homely charm that had been Sebadoh’s trademark since Eric and Lou first fired up their four-tracks. The scattered debris that made the Sebadoh world so personal, so unique, was still present, but it no longer obscured their songwriting, the tension and the moodswings contained therein possessing an electric charge.
This tension would see Sebadoh unravel shortly afterwards, as communications between Gaffney and his bandmates broke down, finally and messily, and Bob Fay was drafted onto the drumstool with immediate effect. Just as they’d firmly entered a new phase, Sebadoh were changing again. And while they would ever remain in transitory tumult, the scribbles and diary entries and fiery tantrums of Bubble & Scrape find Sebadoh simultaneously at their wildest and most tender, capturing their wilful chaos at its most vivid. The essence of everything Sebadoh were and are can be found in these tracks, and it is something as precious as it is contrary.