The devil couldn’t have written a more appropriate single for Kids. Flash to the movie’s opening scene: A pubescent boy, Telly, tries to swindle a screw from an even more pubescent girl. He promises to be gentle. Now flash to Lou Barlow, playing the lover-man with Folk Implosion, one of his side projects. A sensuous bass guitar sets the tone for “Natural One,” Barlow’s come-on: “I’m the one, natural one, take it easy. We could take it inside.” Cut back to Telly, not-even-close-to-gently deflowering his prey as she grimaces in pain.
Relatively few people associate the song, an MTV hit last year, with the movie, which incited a shitstorm of controversy in the media but played only at art houses thanks to its NC17 rating. What’s more, “Natural One” is hardly typical Barlow; with his primary band, Sebadoh, Barlow has proved himself more adept at the convoluted, passive-aggressive come-on than most sensitive thirtysomethings—even those who get laid a lot. As a sexual advance, “Natural One” is roughly as complex as Telly’s image of women. So if it seems like Barlow is stooping when he drops the cheesy line, “when your mama’s not around, there’s no telling what we’ll do,” it’s because he is. He’s pimping for Telly.
It’s hard to imagine a hardcore progenitor morphing as willingly as Barlow. Most wouldn’t even think to try—Bob Mould’s too self-involved, Ian MacKaye’s got his principles, Henry Rollins…forget it. What has spurred Barlow to become something more than the diligent sideman he was in Deep Wound, or the bassist/token screamer he was in Dinosaur Jr., is that he has discovered and then expressed in Sebadoh much that hardcore denied or suppressed. Faced with a maturity that cannot be adequately addressed with fits of anger, rants against uncontrollable powers, or pure guitar volume, Barlow has found solace (and plenty more to get pissed about) in an intimacy that’s manifested in both his subject matter and music-making process. Thanks in large part to Sebadoh’s early work, hissy four-track demos now qualify as finished product in an industry that desperately wants its wares to appear genuine and organically grown. Who needs a studio when all you really want is to write scrappy pop songs that would sound pithy to a punk snob and not entirely out of place in one of James Taylor’s sets? To borrow the title of a Sebadoh tune, “Gimme Indie Rock!”
While lovers, not politics, soak up most of Barlow’s attention, the erstwhile hardcore aesthete appreciates democracy—for better and sometimes worse. There’s no arguing that Barlow is the heart of Sebadoh; he’s been the only constant throughout the band’s history, and his growth as a songwriter, from irony-obsessed malcontent with a knack for pop hooks to deceptively sensitive balladeer beset by derailed romance, is mirrored in the band’s image. But despite the widely held perception that Barlow is the band’s voice, his songs make up only about half of Sebadoh’s music—of the 19 songs on Harmacy, the band’s latest, only eight were penned solely by Barlow.
In the early days, when Eric Gaffney split most of the writing duties with Barlow, the counterpoint could be charming—Barlow would sing about hormonal distress, Gaffney would demonstrate it, and so on.When Jason Loewenstein joined Sebadoh in ’91 and assumed some songwriting duties, Gaffney’s role was diminished and he eventually quit (three times). Loewenstein has occasionally proved Barlow’s equal; his songs on Bakesale, Sebadoh’s ’94 breakthrough and best effort by far, are sometimes indistinguishable from those of his bandmate’s. But his songs on Harmacy are more typical, alternating between dim post-punk (“Nothing Like You,” “Prince-S.”) and molten-guitar assaults (“Crystal Gypsy,” “Zone Doubt”) that seem to have no other purpose than verifying the band’s hardcore roots.
Barlow isn’t susceptible to the trappings that have traditionally confined punks evolving into singer-songwriters; I’d bet even Kurt Cobain (a Barlow admirer) fought against his muse to keep Nirvana’s music grounded mostly in gnarly guitar noise and vocal catharsis. It can be argued that that tendency is evidence of a macho reaction to cover up sensitivity with the implied strength of volume. But on Harmacy, Barlow’s songs have more in common sonically with the soft-rock of ’70s radio fame than anything else. He’s not afraid to be sensitive.
But Barlow’s no Gordon Lightfoot. The manipulative tricks Barlow’s songs perform with power enable him to lay it on soft without coming off like a wimp. Harmacy’s “Willing to Wait,” all overwrought emotion and synth strings, is a shrewdly effective play to finesse an old flame back from her new partner: “When you see him again, tell him everything that you told me,” Barlow instructs her. “Tell him that I’m still your friend.” Barlow clearly revels in angst—his tune about mounting romantic tension, which builds until it leaves “shattered blood and bone,” is called “Beauty of the Ride.”
But Barlow has evolved enough that he always measures his hysteria carefully; his songs are delivered with hard kernels of truth that other indie rockers spend their lives trying to discover. And more often than not, the result is irresistible. “Ocean,” Harmacy’s first single, contains a narrative so seamless that the mellifluous music framing it seems like either an accident or pure fate. It’s the smartest stupid pop song to make it to radio in ages.
Live, Sebadoh is notorious for engaging in mystifying confrontations (either fighting with each other or with fans) and for long, awkward periods of silence. At the 9:30 Club on Sept. 8, the band members kept their heads but took their usual sweet time retuning their guitars, switching instruments, pouting, and otherwise providing an opportunity for the people in the audience to get to know each other. No one seemed to mind. (In a letter drummer/bassist Bob Fay read from an audience member, the author requested anything from Sebadoh III and offered that he/she had two sisters who would love to have anyone in Sebadoh “bust their cherries.” “Oh, not tonight,” Barlow sighed.)
The glacial pace of Sebadoh’s set, filled predominantly with Barlow’s work, had a creepy effect on the music; the songs served as a release from the tense silence. The majestic anthem “Brand New Love,” gained a new beauty, with keyboards supplanting the ’92 version’s lush wash of guitar. On “Together or Alone,” Bakesale’s paranoid cry of being “not worthy” swelled into such a brief but blustery climax that by the time it clanked to a close, I thought the band had given up on it. Later, I realized that the guys had played the tune pretty much verbatim; on the album, the song just sort of fidgets and then peters out. That’s the point.CP