When I wrote about Sebadoh’s 1994 release, Bakesale, I framed a lot of my comments around Sebadoh guitarist and co-singer Lou Barlow’s previous gig, as bass player for Dinosaur Jr. While it could have seemed dismissive of Sebadoh to spend so much time talking about Dinosaur Jr, I think it was kind necessary. Given as how Barlow was still himself so much under the shadow of Dinosaur Jr, and their front man, J Mascis.
But in 2013, when Sebadoh returned after a 14 year hiatus, they had enough of their own legacy that Sebadoh only needs to be thought of in terms of Sebadoh. So without the burden of his other famous band (and that band’s own comeback a few years earlier), how did Barlow go with reintroducing the world to Sebadoh, through Defend Yourself?
Like Bakesale, Defend Yourself shows a distinct skill for melody. Opening pair, I Will and Leave You There are refined, perfectly honed examples of crisp clean melody over all else. Directly followed by Beat, a sludgier, darker approach that stands out even more thanks to its cheery predecessors.
Ramping up the melodious devotion is Oxygen. Balls out sweetness and light, the distorted but bouncy bass line, the distorted, but jangly guitars, the irresistibly chipper vocals. It’s an optimistic sound I just didn’t expect from Defend Yourself.
Things get really unexpected with Inquiries, a hilly billy take on punk rock that could be amazing or could be horrible. I’m still too confused by it to know. I do know that I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon though. State of Mind keeps the boot scootin’ vibe, even adding in a little honky tonk piano. No confusion here, State of Mind is one of Sebadoh’s real stand outs for me on Defend Yourself.
Well into the second half, Final Days is by far the most reminiscent of Bakesale, and it only made me realise how much I was enjoying the evolution of the band on display in the lead up to this track. I really like Bakesale, but I also really like the newer sound of Defend Yourself that I hadn’t fully appreciated in the previous tracks. But hearing them against Final Days, I like them even more.
And while that song is a look back at Sebadoh, Can’t Depend is a look further back into Barlow’s past, to Dinosaur Jr. The vocals have a distinct J Mascis vibe to them and the noodling guitar is even more present than in a typical Sebadoh joint. All this, plus a distinctive drawl to the vocals and pedal steel solo. Combined with Inquiries and State of Mind, there’s a country vibe to Defend Yourself that I can’t imagine anyone predicted when they heard that Sebadoh was back in the studio.
Then comes Let It Out. A perfectly fine song, but it sounds like it not only came from another album, but from another band. It’s quiet, smooth, contemplative and borders on not quite real. The fact that it’s followed by the very similar Listen only highlights their out place feel even more. It’s almost like Sebadoh finished the album with Can’t Depend, but decided it wasn’t quite long enough, and decided to just get some other band to fill out the running time.
When I wrote about Bakesale, I said, “There’s a little padding out towards the end that I could have done without”. And man, is that case with Defend Yourself. Between the tonally out of place Let it Out and Listen, and the pretty lazy, tossed off nature of Separate, Defend Yourself really does it’s best to make me forget the ten tracks of relative awesomeness that come before.
Defend Yourself is pretty great. The only thing that stops it from being super, crazy great, is that last trio of songs. They just leave a taste of unnecessariness in your mouth that could have so easily been avoided.