by Kris Handel (@khandel84)
Act Surprised is the newest recording in the lengthy travails of beloved ‘indie’ punk trio Sebadoh that has seen the band go through countless ups and downs in a myriad of ways. Sebadoh have had quite an eclectic career from the early ‘lo-fi’ albums of fractured folk and collages of noise, to a period of punk blasts and heart on the sleeve songcraft that garnered some acclaim in the early through mid-90s and a re-emergence in 2013 after a 14 year break. Act Surprised follows a period of upheaval in front man Lou Barlow’s life over the past few years that has been well covered in press and documented via Sebadoh’s Defend Yourself, and Barlow’s solo album Brace the Wave. Barlow and long-time musical associate Jason Lowenstein are once again joined by former Fiery Furnace drummer Bob D’amico on a collection of songs that have a renewed sense of vibrancy.
“Phantom” starts off the record with a driving guitar fill and chugging rhythm section as Loewenstein shouts out fears and paranoia over the persistent crunch. There’s a surprising burst of a chorus that bounces around and includes some wonderful shouted harmonies amidst the fierce intermittent blasts of bass and guitar. “Medicate” is one of the more remarkable moments of songwriting on the record as Barlow fights urges to avoid anxieties or responsibility by escaping with substances prescribed or otherwise. Barlow has always had a very open and free approach to voicing self-doubts and emotions and that is brought to the fore in a song like “Medicate” as the opening verse plainly lays out: “Medicate/I hate my brain/I’ll cover up the pain/it creates/prescribe the ride for me/and when my body wants it/I’m your slave…”
“Vacation” starts off with a familiar bit of 60s sounding garage melodies before exploding into alternating bursts of anger provided by Loewenstein’s vocals and tightly coiled guitar work. “Fool” changes the pace a little bit as it happily bounces along with Barlow providing a bit of tongue-in-cheek lilting vocal approach accompanied by distortion drenched guitar. “Sunshine” sputters and juts along with stinging guitar work and D’Amico loping around the beat on his kit as the song employs a bit of new wave inflected tune-smithing. Barlow’s guitar work here is enthralling and the movement and sway of the rhythm section provides a good sense of grounding and fluidity.
Act Surprised shows Sebadoh are as sharp as ever and still have a place in the musical environment they have helped create over the past few decades. Barlow and Lowenstein’s songwriting has matured in a way that is remarkable and although still filled with self-reflection and doubts, there remains a thread that leads to a strong universality. For a band as established as Sebadoh to still have this amount of fantastic material and to be constantly moving forward is heartwarming, endearing and extremely welcome. This record has a self-assurance to it that has come with age and hard worn growth yet imbued with a liveliness that is readily apparent which creates for an engaging listen that is well worth repeating.