Sebadoh: Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock (1992)

September 9, 2011

Sebadoh - smash your headRoll: 4-4-8
Album: Sebadoh, Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock

The name Sebadoh always made me think of Play Doh and sebaceous fluid. So, perhaps, some sort of modelling clay made out of sebum. Like that white stuff that you can dig our of those hard little whiteheads that form around your eyes.

In some ways that might be the best way to describe Sebadoh’s music. Hard, gooey, organic, slightly repulsive but impossible to resist poking at. And perpetually adolescent in a way that only ’90s indie rock can be. This is music written by young Sega-playing men in basement rec-rooms for young Sega-playing men in basement rec-rooms, hiding from responsibility and growing up.

Something happened in the ’90s where being fearful and lazy somehow became popularized and condoned. This might have been in part to Douglas Coupland, Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater tapping into a zeitgeist that was already haunting North American suburbia. Somewhere between the Vietnam and first Gulf wars trying to achieve success became passe and avoiding responsibility by working at a video store or remaining in college perpetually on your Baby-Boomer parents’ dime was hip. Hey, it was their greedy generation’s fault that all the middle-class professional jobs that paid well were filled by a bloated, aging workforce anyway, right? Right?

Add to that the sudden mainstream success of amateur-sounding (compared to musicos like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani) alt/indie garage bands and a whole new paradigm for existence was born. Slacking needed a soundtrack and slacker musicians were there to provide it. And probably no other band sounded so much like they were purposefully slacking-down their music as Sebadoh.

Ramshackle as they were, Pavement always sounded like they were trying to produce polished arena rock records but just lacked the ability. Superchunk always were a pretty tight punk-pop band who just happened to be more influenced by Cheap Trick and Big Star than G.B.H. and Stiff Little Fingers. The discordance of Sonic Youth came more from avant garde, art-rock pretensions than laziness to tune their instruments. Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow had already proved he could play pretty solidly in Dinosaur, Jr., so every time a Sebadoh record tends towards sloppiness (and on the first 3 records, “sloppy” is a flagrant understatement), it sounds a bit contrived. Especially when they occasionally add Sonic Youth-by-numbers textures to their songs (check out the chord voicings on “Notsur Dnuora Selcric“).

It also sounds really, really good.

If you like listening to rock’n’roll that sounds like it’s played by human beings and not precision machines, that is. With all due respect to the above mentioned Vai and Satriani, the hair-metal guitar heroes of the ’80s own musicianship was at odds with actually rocking out—they were ruining rock’n’roll as surely as any pre-fab pop band or new wave synth duo. No wonder people wanted to hear songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the noisy and raw, but undeniably catchy, bubblegum pop of Sebadoh’s “Brand New Love“.

Superchunk’s cover of “Brand New Love” was the track that introduced me to Sebadoh in the summer of 1994. That was the summer I spent being devastated by the first and most emotionally crippling break-up of my life. My girlfriend, Tikki, had been cheating on me with the titular Beast in a community theatre musical production of Beauty and The Beast—she did lights, I was the musical director. We worked on the show with nearly every single one of my best friends. They all knew about the affair yet none of them thought to inform me. One of the excuses they later used was that the affair was so blatantly obvious it would have been absurd for me to not have known and they assumed I was okay with the situation. Oh-kay. Sure, that’s a reasonable conclusion.

Of course, the affair was brazenly being carried on out in the open but since Tikki told me she’d been asked by the director to inform me I’d been banned from the theatre for being “moody” and hurting the gang’s morale, I didn’t have much of a chance to witness it. And naturally I assumed, since my besties would have my back, if something was going on they’d have given me a heads-up. Not surprisingly, the banishment turned out to be a fabrication on her part designed to rob me of the opportunity to catch them in the act or otherwise cramp her style.

When the truth later came out, according to them they felt it “wasn’t their place” to let me know I was in danger of possibly contracting HIV via her carnal association with the ex-lover of a notoriously promiscuous Edmonton play write. Whose place was it then?, I wondered. They claimed it was Tikki’s place though I never saw any evidence they encouraged her to come clean with me.

Plus that kind of drama would have really fucked things up for the production so it was, as I saw it, swept under the rug for the summer. Shows before bros.

It’s a pretty standard coming-of-age stort but in 1994 I was at an especially naive and trusting 22-year-old and the idea of such grand betrayals and conspiracies among friends utterly broke me. I, quite frankly, lost my shit. I hadn’t learned yet that this is simply how reality operates. I hadn’t yet learned the Platinum Rule. A local hair-metal star I’d idolized since junior high named Paul Laine, in whose studio I’d recorded the music for Beauty and the Beast, laid it out for me:

Anyone, at any time, no matter who they are, is capable of betraying you.

Being a die-hard—if wounded—romantic, I scoffed at this kind of cynical aphorism. It took me a while to appreciate the bitter pill of wisdom. In fact I completely refused to acknowledge the truth in it. So, faced with the dichotomy of my romantic ideals versus reality, and true to the arrested development of my generation, I took out my feelings of hurt and betrayal in the most passive-aggressive ways my subconscious could muster.

I shaved my head, I began drinking (I’d been a teetotaller up to that point), and I ran my girlfriend’s bicycle into an on-coming car. After she slept with our room-mate Kevin (more about him in a future post) and then left me for her brother’s 48-year old soccer coach (and grocery store night janitor), I took to branding myself with knives and rings heated up in candle flames.

As you’d expect, I was listening to a lot of hard-edged industrial-metal and gangsta rap around this time. The darker and more aggressive the better. I needed music bitter and dark as a cup of coffee brewed in an old oil can. Black and grimy as a Sega Genesis console covered in microwaved burrito grease. Some days the only thing that got me out of bed was to play NHL ’95 against Kevin all day in our underwear—I didn’t yet know about his and Tikki’s assignation.

Then, suddenly as it came, the storm of infernal misery passed. Well, that is to say, Tikki moved out of our terrible wood-panelled rec-room apartment.

I abandoned my Cyrpess Hill, Helmet, NIN, Ministry and KMFDM CDs and started listening to relatively breezy power-pop. Weezer, Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Sloan and Superchunk, specifically. Mopey and nihilistic as all those bands tended to be, they weren’t angry. I didn’t want to be angry anymore, I wanted to get happy. And I was getting happy. Albeit in a relatively depressed manner. I’d just met a new girl who wouldn’t start making me truly miserable for at least another ten months (I’ve mentioned her before. She’s the one who tried to murder me after I broke up with her).

But anyway, as I was saying, it was Superchunk’s cover of “Brand New Love” from Sebadoh’s 4th album (or 2nd “proper” album), Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock, that was my introduction to these poster boys for slacker-culture. Once I read in a fanzine (this was pretty much still pre-Internet), about the origins of that three-minute pop gem, I immediately ran out and picked up Sebadoh’s subsequent album, Bubble and Scrape. I deemed it as mediocre faux-Sonic Youth lacking the pop genius of “Brand New Love” and went back to devouring the Superchunk catalogue. Later, Bubble and Scrape would end up being one of my favourite indie-rock albums of the ’90s (over anything Superchunk ever did) and ended up being my favourite Sebadoh album—even winning-out over the classics III and Bakesale.

For some reason a copy of Smash Your Head eluded me for years. I eventually picked it at up, purely on principle, at Blackball Records years after I no longer cared about indie-rock. I listened to it once, said, Superchunk’s version was better, and sold it back to the store. That was a mistake I rectified a few years ago after picking up the excellent expanded re-issues of III and Bubble and Scrape. It turns out Smash Your Head is equal to the best titles in Sebadoh’s discography.

It’s discordant and noisy without sacrificing pop sensibilities and poppy without compromising on the adventurous tonal explorations that always set them apart from being just another indie-rock band with loud guitars and bored-sounding vocals. Also with only 12 songs it’s one of the most concise records they ever made. It still borrows from Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, Jr. but Lou Barlow’s, Eric Gaffney‘s, and Jason Loewenstein‘s voices as songwriters in their own right really start to gel here. It also sounds like a proper album by a proper band for the first time instead of a slapdash collage of bedroom tapes which III, despite it’s reputation and accolades, still suffers from (especially in the sprawling expanded edition).

More than just a snapshot of a time when slackers ruled the world, Smash Your Head On The Punk Rock is an underrated indie-rock classic suffering only from impossible to avoid comparisons with Sebadoh’s more famous records.


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