It's fairly remarkable that Sebadoh still has a trademark sound, given how much they've changed over the years. Lou Barlow's days as a nerdy, introspective guy playing with a four-track cassette machine are ancient history in 2019, the year they released Act Surprised, but to this day that's what many folks think of first when they hear the group's name. The 2010s edition of Sebadoh -- Barlow on guitar, Jason Loewenstein on bass, and drummer Bob D'Amico -- has matured into a tight and confident rock band with an impressive amount of muscle, but there's just enough skittery play in the guitar lines and the right amount of angst in Barlow's vocals that even this relatively chops-intensive and high-fidelity version of Sebadoh carries a germ of the satisfying chaos of their earliest work. Arriving six years after 2013's Defend Yourself, Act Surprised melodically recalls the band's mid-'90s salad days of 1994's Bakesale and 1996's Harmacy, with plenty of tunefulness and hooks running counter to the emotional awkwardness. But the performances are significantly brawnier in 2019; D'Amico hits a lot harder than Eric Gaffney or Bob Fay did in Sebadoh's earlier incarnations, and that has encouraged Barlow and Loewenstein to turn it up and rock out a bit. Justin Pizzoferrato's engineering sounds a bit buzzy in the low end, but the highs are clear, bright, and punchy, adding considerably to the impact of the performances, and though this is a long, long way from the resin-infused thunder of Dinosaur Jr., cuts like "Follow the Breath," "Phantom," and "Stunned" suggest Barlow is at long last bringing more of what he's learned in his other band into Sebadoh. Emotionally, Act Surprised feels just like Sebadoh, but if you ever wished they'd make an album that would sound big, loud, and suitable for blasting on your car stereo, this is a sure step in that direction.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming