Wow, you know you’re living in an indie-fading, mainstream-hobbling time when you follow Rolling Stone, NME, Bandcamp and The Skinny on Facebook (I disrespectfully choose not to follow Pitchfork) and you don’t hear about the new Sebadoh album until four months after it’s out, from the in-studio on KEXP’s feed, as it were. This is coming, at that, in the same year that Rob Sheffield stuck his slick hands into the hipster pool for Sebadoh’s “Brand New Love” (an especially odd choice seeing as it comes on a b sides album) for his “50 Best Songs of the Nineties” and Pavement’s “Gold Soundz,” a good choice for it not being “Cut Your Hair,” and pretty much from there cut us a new pressing of a Now That’s What I Call Music 3/Jock Jams 8 mashup.
So all this, and still Sebadoh don’t get no respect. Actually, I was just thinking about Sebadoh this morning: I used to spend profuse hours listening to The Sebadoh, which at the time seemed like their swan song album (and maybe shoulda been) from February ’99, one of the last few months before music became free of charge. One interesting similarity I notice between that album and May ’19’s offering of Act Surprised (yeah that’s really 20 years although I think a lot of our hearts are like cryogenically frozen in this day and age) is that they both open with a Jason Loewenstein number and followup with a more down, melancholic but major-chord borne Lou Barlow tune, on which the lyrics are, characteristically, markedly more direct and less tongue-in-cheek. I probably would have given The Sebadoh a 10. Really, I’m a pretty lenient dude. But actually when I first heard it I’d gone to the record store in search of some Lemonheads and some Oasis (hey I didn’t say I was always cultured) and The Sebadoh split the perfect bisector between the two, satiating both urges in one fell swoop.
Now, part of the drawback of Act Surprised, and part of why they probably want you to do just that, is the very quandary of the precedent. It certainly feels like, that is, that they’re mimicking The Sebadoh, offering a new 15-song collection of garage rock, no synth, no sax, no PRODUCTION, as far as I can tell (they can’t throw in some digital hand claps here and there just to be stupid?), so basically the only thing that has changed since The Sebadoh is that Barlow’s vocal style is even more namby-pamby, like a watered down permutation of The Folk Implosion that lacks that band’s expansive songwriting repertoire and plurality of guitar playing/plucking techniques.
But Act Surprised definitely isn’t horrible. Listening to this band the first time with it as your bastion, you would certainly note the cavalier, devil-may-care dispositions of both singers (the honesty of Barlow and the playfulness of Loewenstein, to be exact), the lack of production gimmick, which again I note as a de facto drawback for its already having been thoroughly explored by this band, and just the general lyrical restraint, a deafness to the typical thematic ploys that can tug at the listener’s heart strings. Sebadoh don’t want to tug at your heart strings, I don’t think. They want to… uh.. be J. Mascis, which is probably why they only got a 6.5 on the vaunted Dolby Disaster. In general, this is Teenage Fanclub with a slightly more virile bass and a couple more drum fills. The best segment of the album is probably tracks seven through nine, with “stunned” rocking with reckless abandon like a Broken Social Scene on meth, “fool” marking the first evidence that Barlow can still write a song that couldn’t soundtrack a show on Oxygen, and then “raging river” sauntering in with some tension and also just seeming like this hilariously imagistic, “idyllic” title for a band that, obvious by the title and the general slacker culture in which they pragmatically immerse themselves, could probably care less about such things.