After a 14-year hiatus, Sebadoh are back with Defend Yourself, their first full-length since 1999’s The Sebadoh (Sub Pop). To be fair, it’s not like the Massachusetts rockers have been twiddling their thumbs for the past decade-plus. Lou Barlow has kept himself immensely busy with the Dinosaur Jr. reunion, Sentridoh, and his solo career. Jason Loewenstein (the other half of Sebadoh’s lean, mean songwriting-machine) took his talents to Brooklyn and performed with the Fiery Furnaces. When the late aughties rolled around and it came time to reissue of the early Sebadoh albums, the original lineup reconvened for a tour. Then in July of last year, the trio (now featuring the drumming talents of Fiery Furnaces’ Bob D’Amico, in lieu of founder Eric Gaffney) released the Secret EP, giving fans the new tunes they’d been craving for so long.
Now, at long last, we’ve got Defend Yourself, and thankfully not much has changed in the way of Sebadoh’s core sound: the guitars are just as grizzled, the melodies just as infectious, the angst just as angsty. Don’t believe me? Queue up the opening track, I Will, and feel yourself being whisked away to the crunchy soundscapes of Bakesale, the subdued seething still very much intact (opening line: “Can you tell that I’m about to lose control?”). Or the twitchy Beat, an electrocuting post-punk jam with some tantalizing shoegaze squiggles at the end.
Interwoven with the band’s traditional touchstones are traces of its members’ solo work, endowing Defend Yourself with a vulnerability that whispers, rather than roars. Let it Out, one of several softer, Barlow-penned ballads, paints a chilly, confessional portrait of a life-long love that’s crossed the threshold into its twilight. “Still I’m holding on to whatever turns me on,” the divorceé sighs, “The promise of a new, familiar way.” The optimism is hardly believable, and yet that’s what lends the song (the best on the album) its subtle, soul-sucking gravity.
Some cuts stumble. The quirky instrumental, Once, never picks up steam; and the headache-inducing, math-rock-botch of Defend Yr Self is made worse with lyrics about catching kangaroos and getting dumped. But for the most part, the album stands as one of the stronger reunion records in a year that’s been practically overrun with them. In a time where lo-fi is making a comeback as a sought-after aesthetic, rather than the aural consequence of insufficient funds, it’s only appropriate that one of the authors of the college-rock text return to show the freshmen how it’s done.