It’s been six years since Sebadoh put out their last record, so it would seem that the release of this ninth full-length, Act Surprised (2019), is long overdue. But actually, that’s relatively quick for the lo-ﬁ indie rock legends. After all, there was a 14 year gap/semi-hiatus between 2013’s Defend Yourself and its predecessor, The Sebadoh, so really, six years is nothing. Besides, the trio – Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein and Bob D’Amico – have a pretty good reason.
“Lou is always being taken away and abducted by Dinosaur Jr. for these fun and exciting next-level rock’n’roll tours,” chuckles Loewenstein, “so when we get him back we have to relight the ﬁre.” That’s exactly what the trio did, recording 15 new songs with Justin Pizzoferrato, the engineer behind many Dinosaur Jr. albums. Recorded at Sonelab in Easthampton, Massachusetts it marked a change in approach for the band, who had not only produced the previous record themselves, but who also gave themselves a bit more time than usual to get everything ﬁnished. “In the past,” says Barlow, “we would write in the studio and the songs would develop on the road.“
“This time, we did some rehearsals a few weeks before recording,” adds Loewenstein, “which we almost never do. So we got a chance to not use the ﬁrst take and took time to ﬁnesse things, which we also don’t usually do, so that was a good step.” And while Loewenstein admits that the album became something it wouldn’t have done had Sebadoh self-produced it, as they did with Defend Yourself, he learned to just go with the ﬂow while they were making it. “I’ve done a lot of recording for other bands as well as the last Sebadoh record,” he says, “so it was a little bit strange giving up the science and the tech sides of the recording process. I had to try to leave Justin alone and let him do his thing, trusting that it would be okay. I really enjoyed working with him and he’s a perfect ﬁt for this band.”
“I’ve always wanted to work with Justin on a Sebadoh record,” adds Barlow. “We were able to ﬁnish a record as opposed to handing it off in the ﬁnal stages to the Dinosaur Jr. machine.”
“Besides his technical skill as an engineer,” says D’Amico, “his temperament is perfect for the personalities in the band, and we all were comfortable working with him. He’s a musician and he works that way – thinking like a guy in the band and the engineer simultaneously.”
It’s true. As such, this is a collection of songs that recalls the classic Sebadoh sound – that iconic fuzzy, jangle of guitars that’s both joyful and wistful at the same time – but which also takes their sound both forwards and sideways. It sees Barlow and Loewenstein singing and harmonizing together more than ever before to create what D’Amico terms a “real ‘sound’.” Barlow and Loewenstein each wrote seven songs, while D’Amico wrote penultimate track “Leap Year” – a hyperactive mush of angular rhythms that reﬂects the odd, slightly dystopian world that we all seem to be living in right now.
“To state the obvious,” says D’Amico, “we’re living in a surreal time in this country. There are folk tales about leap years and their disconnection from reality – and 2016 was a leap year that won’t end.” Similar themes ﬂow throughout both Barlow and Loewenstein’s compositions, too. The former are slightly more mellow, gentle affairs, all written and recorded exclusively on 4-string guitar – “electric and acoustic 12 string guitars I have modiﬁed and use with alternate tunings.” Barlow explains.
As such, lead single “Celebrate the Void” is oddly soothing in spite of the fact it rushes off in a ﬂurry of guitars by the end, while both “Medicate” and “Sunshine” shimmer with glorious poignancy and self-examination. “Those two songs are subjects I’ve been mulling over for a while,” says Barlow. “’Medicate’ is about the two shortcuts to mental-ease and spirituality we try to take: drugs and religion. These have become for-proﬁt enterprises that have little to do with changing the root causes of our problems.. ‘Sunshine’ is about ﬁnding beauty at home as opposed to trying to buy it or hiking up a mountain to ﬁnd it.”
Loewenstein’s focus is similar but his songs are more turbulent, a reﬂection of the anxiety he says he feels most of the time and which you can hear in the frayed, bass-heavy “Stunned” and “Battery”. That’s something he says is compounded by these days of advanced technology, especially the increasing dominance of mobile phones and the internet in our everyday lives. “Lyrically, the theme is being overwhelmed by all the inclinations of modern living and trying to ﬁnd release from it. All this modern technology causes new problems – new social problems, new anxiety problems and new quasi-addiction problems for people. So it’s a whole new dynamic and as an anxious person before technology, it makes me even more anxious.”
Tangential to that is his song “Raging River”. With its reference to 9/11 and tin foil hats, it shines a light on the prevalence of conspiracy theories, but more importantly addresses the double-whammy of constant misinformation and a lack of critical thinking.
While Sebadoh isn’t an overtly political band, that’s something Loewenstein says acts as a metaphor for the America that has a shady businessman and reality TV star as a president. “Somehow, sociohypnotically, we’ve had the rug of facts and truth pulled out from under us by the actions of this weirdo,” he says. “Which is remarkable. But as chaotic and horrible to question what is true, the fact is we should have been questioning it all along.”
To that extent, Act Surprised is a vital album for the modern age. And while it retains the quintessential hallmarks that have deﬁned Sebadoh throughout their remarkable 30 year career, it’s also a record that ﬁnds the band refreshed, rejuvenated, exploring new directions and right up there with the band’s very best. “I’m really proud of this record,” says D’Amico, “and I really enjoyed how we went about it. I think it sounds different from the rest of the Sebadoh catalogue in some ways, so I hope that we can make the old fans happy but gain some new ones as well.”
It’s been a steep slope for the Extended Play record, the wicked stepchild of music formats. Physical EPs had become anachronisms, bygone symbols of the halcyon indie years of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but the pendulum has begun to swing back in recent times, with fine EPs released by Belle and Sebastian, Lesser Evil, Public Practice and Protomartyr. Now 2019 delivers the superb EP Ex Nihilo by Versus, one of the downright epochal bands of the urbane grime of the ‘90s indie rock scene. It’s both a return to form and format, as the band has a long history of companion pieces to their seminal albums, EPs that were full-on artistic triumphs, often becoming even more beloved by their fans.
Their first was 1993’s Let’s Electrify!, which made an appearance in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop’s Top 10, an unexpected accolade and honor for a debut release. Let’s Electrify! was Versus’ entry into their own rarefied stratosphere, a mission statement of artistic purpose — slashing, melodic guitar figures, leavened by the band’s greatest strength, the gorgeous yin/yang co-lead vocals of Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups, seamlessly complementing one another’s idiosyncratic vocal styles, rolling over each other like flood waters. Versus continued the tradition and trajectory with Deep Red (Teen Beat) in 1996, and the fan favorite Afterglow EP (Merge) in 1999.
Now, twenty years since Afterglow, and nearly ten since their last release, 2010’s On the Ones and Threes, Versus have added to their sublime EP legacy, releasing another masterpiece in Ex Nihilo, an exposition on divinity and creation, literally meaning “out of nothing.” Opener “Invisible Love” is a brisk swagger careening toward catastrophe — a relationship breaking down amid accusations of perfidy, as Baluyut questions God acerbically, “Where’d you hide your invisible love?”
Versus always were a band that excavated painful intimacies, and they’re still fixated on the elusive, ineluctable nature of love, and how cruelly it can be taken away in a world where individuals control so little. In “Bow and Arrow,” Toups steps to the fore in spectacular fashion, a call to action for women of all ages to overthrow their #metoo oppressors, “can’t reverse the curse carryin’ a purse” as she retains her trademark ability to pointedly incriminate, “you missed your shot.” “Gravity (Version)” is a doomsday sepulchral, as Baluyut questions, “What is left behind when the spirit’s gone?”
Off-kilter rhythmic slabs and choppy guitar discomfit, as if fighting to ward off the inevitable truth that life is cosmic purgatory, one where we’re “bored of sleep and dream of death.” Yes, Versus is still nihilistic. Time inexorably moves, love fades away, but tonight could well be the night. “Between the Hemispheres,” the EP’s closer, offers sweet resignation, as Baluyut sings, “you’re the fairest of them all, but I didn’t say it enough, I couldn’t find the words,” before Toups’ guardian angel assures him, “all you want is love.” In Versus’ latest act, clothed in science fiction and existential dilemma, redemption in this brave new world can be found in the sweetness of love. They may sneer cynically, but also care deeply.
So EPs can still astonish in 2019! And Versus? This EP precedes future cryptic work to be announced, and what does this mean for the public’s interest in a band that was, according to Sam Fogarino of Interpol, “all everyone talked about in 1997.” Are there second acts in 21st century dystopic dreams? We’ll find out as more is revealed. But for now, let’s revel in this sensational band’s return. Blast this EP, and realize Versus never really went away — we just stopped asking them, and that’s on us. But we can certainly expect a blinding album, expanding on the sci-fi concepts subtly hinted at on Ex Nihilo, an interesting progression for a band that once dwelled in “failed apartments” (Two Cents Plus Tax ‘s “Dumb Fun”).
Life gets bigger, like it or not. These are terrifying times, but Versus have matured and address gravitas with dignity. They once joked of being the “sports, rock, and meat” band, but now they embrace spirituality, compassion, and exploration. Versus have never sounded so comfortable with their strange, beautiful, and uncertain path. They’ve always traveled in the shadows of the heart and beyond, so expect more “out of nothing” in the future.