The most important thing Nirvana gave me was an appreciation for noise. I was given a dubbed copy of Bleach as an 11 year old boy and I liked it. It wasn't the fastest or loudest thing I had ever heard. There weren't Valkyrie-wail falsettos or face-melting guitar licks, but it was the noisiest record I had ever heard and I liked it, I liked it a lot. I wanted more of it. I wanted to find other bands that were noisy as shit, bands that didn't care about state-of-the-art studios and clean production. I was never going to find a band that sounded like Nirvana, I know that now, but I found bands that felt the same, and of the bunch, Sebadoh was the best.
Sonic Youth was probably the most auteur, Dinosaur Jr. was certainly the loudest, Guided By Voices was by far the most prolific, Pavement was the most accessible, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was without a doubt the most humorous, but Sebadoh was the best.
I bought my first Sebadoh album in 1994 when I still had a subscription to Rolling Stone and still had faith in the music media. I can't remember who reviewed the record, what rating it was given, or what was said about the album, but something in the review must've hit home because I went out and bought Bakesale right away. By the time I got through "Magnet's Coil", I was convinced this was one of the best albums I would ever own. After hearing "Soul and Fire" from 1993's Bubble and Scrape, I knew that Sebadoh was one of the best bands that I would ever listen to.
I still think all of bands that Bleach led me to are great. I listen to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Bee Thousand on a pretty normal basis. Dinosaur Jr. can still make me smile when I'm in the right mood. JSBE's salacious post-rock, non-blues can still easily be the life of the party, and Sonic Youth is, well, for me, Sonic Youth hasn't aged as well as the others, but it's still hard to argue with Daydream Nation. But when I listen to these bands now, something's different. When I first heard each one of these bands, their sonic commonalities sounded like a state of being. And with the exception of GBV, when I listen to them now, it sounds more like, I don't want to say contrived, but maybe a little less-than-natural. Now, it sounds less like a state of being and more like a statement of cool. Not necessarily schtick or gimmick, more like a way to seem legit; like a way to seem more creative without having to be more creative, and that cheapens the records a bit. It's a super teeny tiny bit, certainly not enough for me to dislike or discredit the bands or the records. They're all good and some are great, but for the most part, the sound, or at least the impact it has on me has degraded. But not with Sebadoh. If anything, every time I listen to Sebadoh these days, I'm a little more convinced of Lou Barlow's brilliance.
For Lou Barlow and and the rest of Sebadoh (with the exception of Eric Gaffney, but the Lou Vs. Eric story is almost an entire blog on its own), the "sound" of the records was never important. The albums were recorded in low fidelity, but the songs were never lo-fi. Lou Barlow didn't revel in it. Lou Barlow never even acknowledged it. It wasn't an ideology, it wasn't an artistic statement, it was just reality, it was just the way the records sounded.
Lou Barlow's songs were never a response to being in a noisy band. If anything, Sebadoh was a noisy band in spite of how utterly brilliant Lou Barlow's songs were. His songs ache. They drip honesty. They're romantic, bitter, irreverent, hopeful. They're 3 minute examinations of the vulnerability of man, exposing, chronicling, celebrating, lamenting the human condition.
Lou Barlow can do fun ("Rebound", "Good Things"). He can do scathing ("The Freed Pig"). He can do bitter ("Cliche"), and he's amazing at reflective ("Spoiled"), but his best songs are love songs. Listen to either version of "Brand New Love", "Vampire", "Soul and Fire", "Magnet's Coil", "Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)", "Willing to Wait", "Together or Alone", or "On Fire" and you'll understand everything. I may be a inept romantic, but above everything else, I think everyone truly wants to love and to be loved. Love songs are the ones with the real power to change the world, and Lou Barlow has written some of the most enduring, honest, and heartbreaking love songs of the last 30 years. At their core, his songs are these stark, unadorned, sometimes bleak, always beautiful love songs that should move even the heaviest heart.
And that should be enough, but when you take into account the way these songs are presented, amazing becomes genius. Lou Barlow used the "lo-fi" aesthetic to propel Sebadoh's sound into an entirely different stratosphere than all of the other bands I earlier mentioned. The thick-as-mud distortion in the chorus of the Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock version of "Brand New Love", or the way "Soul and Fire" alternates between quiet-and-clean and loud-and-chaotic, or how the sparse treble of "Together or Alone" can give way to warm, heavy hum without warning or seam are the reasons why Sebadoh was better than everyone else.
Lou Barlow never used noise to justify his songs, he used as a way to increase dynamic tension in them. He used noise to exemplify feeling. He used is to punctuate ideas. He used it create juxtaposition, he used it to notate opposition. He used it to drive home his point.
Lou Barlow's songs weren't defined by noise, they were clarified through it. He never used it as a crutch or as a disclaimer, he used it as a sonic windrose. He wrote songs for Sebadoh that were inherently universal and used noise not to characterize them but to explain them. Noise didn't make Sebadoh, it just made them more awesome. 15 year old Brandon may be as big an idiot as 32 year old Brandon is, but he most certainly got two things right: Amanda's a solid lady-friend, and Sebadoh is one of the best bands anyone will ever listen to.