Defend Yourself

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Led by once and future Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow, Sebadoh blazed through the '90s helping to define movements in both indie rock and lo-fi music with their often confused and always ramshackle albums of stoner punk anthems, goofball non sequiturs, and moody, heartbroken post-grunge guitar rock. Following a 14-year dormancy since 1999's lackluster The Sebadoh, Defend Yourself revitalizes the project with surprisingly few huge changes. Barlow's most serious tunes are still marked by his signature ache, this time informed by the breakup of his 25-year marriage. Songs like the tormented pop of "Oxygen" wouldn't even have sounded that futuristic when Dinosaur Jr. was still called Dinosaur and began making records for Homestead in the mid-'80s. The homespun recording ethic of the band's early lo-fi days is revisited as well, with songs sounding like home recordings with updated means, but they're still relatively gnarly. The buzzy drums and walls of cross-fading guitars on "Final Days" and the plodding fuzz bass, Cobain-ian grunge wail of "Defend Yr Self" sound on par with the band's four-track '90s masterworks like Bubble & Scrape. There are even some of the classically bad sidestepping moments that tempered the genius of those albums, such as the ugly cowpunk nonsense of "Inquiries," complete with Loewenstein singing in a hayseed accent. Of the things that didn't make it from Sebadoh's earlier days are any of their three previous drummers, most notably Eric Gaffney, who was a songwriter with equal shares in the band's albums up to 1993. The speedfreak urgency that Gaffney lent to the band was replaced by the more emotionally rocky playing of Bob Fay and then others, but all of those characteristics are missing, and the show here seems to be run mostly by Barlow with some input from Jason Loewenstein. Without ever exactly getting back to their '90s glory days, Defend Yourself still sounds best when it's as close to that neurotic wonder as possible almost two decades later. Barlow's sullen self-loathing on the softly sung "Let It Out" has just the right amount of nostalgia. This song recalls his best '90s compositions, holding honesty in its intensity, where the faux-Americana of "Can't Depend" just sounds like a useless exercise in genre, or a songwriter dipping his toes in a passing obsession with early Wilco. Like several of the tracks here, it could have easily been left off the album and resulted in a stronger whole. While there's nothing wrong with the piecemeal construction of the record, 14 years is a long time to wait for an album that sets blandness and brilliance beside each other in an almost equal ratio. When Defend Yourself hits its stride, however, it's amazing how timeless and unique the classic Sebadoh sound really is.

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