1994 was a hell of a year for losing drummers. Pavement had dropped Gary Young the year before and put out the seminal Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain without him. Dinosaur Jr put out Without a Sound, their first record without Murph behind the kit. And Sebadoh released Bakesale, their first record without drummer Eric Gaffney.
Of these records, Pavement’s obviously got the most attention, plus there were other classic indie rock records put out that year, like Superchunk’s Foolish. Point is, the field was crowded, and while Sebadoh have always been appreciated by die-hard indie rock fans, the scope of their popularity has been a bit limited. So, clearly, the idea behind this huge reissue of Bakesale–like the recent reissues of The Freed Man, Sebadoh III, and Bubble & Scrape–is to get people to give Sebadoh another look.
Even if it flew under the radar a bit, though, you can hardly call Bakesale underrated. It landed on its share of year-end lists (and even fell in Spin’s top 20 albums of the year) and garnered plenty of praise. It’s also an album released on the same day as Barlow’s old band, Dinosaur Jr, put out an album (Without a Sound) that is considered their worst. Meanwhile, many consider Bakesale the height of Sebadoh’s powers, and the line on it has always been it is their most direct and tuneful album.
Tuneful as it may be, it is also the most brooding indie rock record of the bunch mentioned here, but it can also hold its own with any of them (and yes, that includes the untouchable Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain). Before 1994, Sebadoh records were unpredictable, often lo-fi, slapdash affairs. Lou Barlow delivered the moody indie-pop, Jason Loewenstein slowly but surely grew into the band’s jagged rocker, and Eric Gaffney was their agent of chaos (check Sebadoh III‘s unruly “As the World Dies, the Eyes of God Grow Bigger” for evidence). Without Gaffney–sort of, he plays on four tracks —Bakesale lost its structureless, screeching antics but not its sense of shifting tones and tempos.
The album starts with buzzing rockers “License to Confuse,” “Careful,” and album (and career) standout “Magnet’s Coil.” In 1994, these must have been a bit off-putting, if only for the clarity of production. Gone was the tape-hiss and cheap crunch that informed 1992’s Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, and in its place were songs that sounded clearly recorded but never scrubbed up to shine. Loewenstein’s “Not Too Amused” is still scuffed at the edges, the guitar tones never fully taking shape, while Barlow’s first ballad on the record “Not a Friend” places the rattling bass above the guitar in a bizarrely haunting twist.
That’s not to say the boys don’t clean up well here either. The simple pop bliss of “Skull” adds a sunny haze to Barlow’s down-in-the-dumps baritone, and “Temptation Tide,” new drummer Bob Fay’s one offering on the album, features his partner Anne Slinn’s dreamy vocals. What becomes clear on this record, as the great songs pile up, as it whips up into a fever in places but never quite shakes its teenage-angst overcast, is that this is the record that finds Barlow and Loewenstein on equal footing as songwriters. If this seems a more even-keeled record, it’s because Loewenstein is more consistent than he was on Bubble & Scrape. He taps into his own sad-bastard side here, so you may mistake this as Loewenstein doing his best Barlow. But, in the end, Barlow’s finest moments — even the driving “Rebound” — are about the melody and the jangling chords, while Loewenstein wants that rocking grind, and often works himself into an unleashed howl.
With both guys on, and complementing each other so well — Loewnstein’s edge balances Barlow’s sad croon and vice versa — Bakesale is indeed their finest record. As brilliant as the three before it were, this is Sebadoh’s most complete statement, and an indie rock highlight in a time where there was no shortage of those. For those who missed the experimental side of the band, the bonus disc here reminds us that their tape-hiss and wandering never left them. Culled from bonus 7-inches, demos, and singles from the Bakesale era, the second disc shows the oddball beginnings this excellent album rose out of. Loewenstein’s demos are particularly striking — showcasing early versions of “Careful,” “Shit Soup,” and others — and act as solid documents of his growth as a writer and singer.
Barlow turns in his own bizarre success with the dissonant “Lime Kiln,” and his shuffling “Social Medicine” is the best studio outtake here. There are some throwaways, like Bob Fay’s sound experiments and the full-band noise tracks that made up the b-sides to the “Magnet’s Coil” single, but there’s also the excellent acoustic performances of “Rebound,” “On Fire” (which would open 1996’s Harmacy), and “Magnet’s Coil” that remind us of the sweet melodies under the moody weight of the record.
Whether Bakesale got its just due its first time around or not, this is another generous and essential Sebadoh reissue. The beautifully (which is to say, lightly) remastered album, and the warts ‘n all bonus disc shows us just how good of a band Sebadoh were, and why they became far more than just the band Barlow started after he left Dinosaur Jr. Not only that, Bakesale stands up remarkably well 17 years later, and makes a case that, in 1994, the indie rock world wasn’t just about Pavement and Nirvana. There was also Barlow and Loewenstein.