Stunningly colorful sonic chameleons
Sebadoh leader Lou Barlow has always moved to the beat of his own drum. It is the singer/songwriter’s strong character that likely led to his dismissal from his first band Dinosaur Jr. in the late ‘80s. The band reunited in 2005 but what occurred in the meantime is the main focus here: the formation, hiatus and return of sonic chameleons Sebadoh. Barlow had formed Sebadoh with multi-instrumentalist Eric Gaffney before his Dinosaur Jr. exit and naturally turned his attention to it full time after the sacking. 31 years later, Sebadoh’s place in rock folklore is cemented as their ninth studio album sees the light of day.
Act Surprised is not only the band’s latest discography entry, but it is also a legitimate testament to their longevity in the music business. Characterized by an ability to change colors at will—in terms of their genre—these indie-rock pioneers have soaked in many types of waters. In this latest entry, Sebadoh once again dips into sonic ponds of alternative rock, post-grunge, lo-fi and indie. Despite rotating band members, industry trends, a fourteen-year recording hiatus and more, Sebadoh has shown the ability to adapt wonderfully.
The album’s first single and second track “celebrate the void” has some broody hooks—caramelized with rich harmonies—that hit a sweet spot right away. The sharp guitar riffs of “stunned” show off the grunge-style souvenirs the band picked up during the early ‘90s. The eighth track, “fool” has an indie pop vibe that feels out of place and ideally in place at once. The contorting bassline of “raging river” is irresistible and honors the group’s hard rock tendencies. Truthfully, if Sebadoh suddenly decided to add some flowing hip-hop verses to one of the songs, it would be neither surprising nor unwelcome.
Sebadoh’s ability to change sonic shades from song to song is impressive, but the group’s true colors are in indie rock, and this shows in the record’s tenth track “Sunshine.” The stand-out song is driven by an effortlessly chic drum beat and inner-directed lyrics that cite Barlow’s rocky years; it is as honest as a tune can get. The record closes out with the energetic “Reykjavik,” whose heavy-handed drum beat complements its vibrant hooks. From start to finish the album is a sprint that perfectly encapsulates the group’s resilient spirit.
Sebadoh’s colors can be seen on lo-fi artists of now such as Wavves and Cloud Nothings, also in hints across the indie rock spectrum. Act Surprised serves a further reminder that great groups never really go away, their ability to change and adapt, plus their long-lasting musical contributions make them permanent fixtures. Sebadoh and its band members—past and present—are chameleons that blend into songs of tomorrow, into the highlights of rock’s history and the minds of today.