As bands get older, they start to sell out--or do they?
By Noel Murray
APRIL 5, 1999: I was 15 when I first heard the word "sellout." I was chatting with some punk pals about The Replacements and Husker Du (two of my favorites), when my companions mocked both bands as artistically bankrupt just because they'd recently signed to major labels. Funny enough, I still listen to the 'Mats and the Huskers, but I haven't talked to those friends in over 10 years. And since then, I've been suspicious of snobbish music fans who claim that anyone who ever picked up an instrument was better "before"--in that mythical time before they were co-opted by commercialism.
Unfortunately, even rock 'n' roll true believers will come to a moment when their heroes let them down. For punk fans, the letdown is almost inherent in the genre Unless fans refine their tastes, their favorite bands' inevitable gravitation to finely honed musicianship is bound to disillusion. But when exactly does a musician cross that line--the point at which the audience's expectations fall out of sync with his own creative needs?
Paul Westerberg confronts this very question in the opening song of his third solo album, Suicaine Gratification. "I'm past my prime/Or was that just a pose," he sings on the poignant acoustic ballad "It's a Wonderful Lie." That's a barbed reference to the critical reaction generated by his previous two solo albums--the admittedly disappointing 14 Songs and Eventually--especially compared to the ecstatic praise he received as leader of The Replacements. In his earlier work, Westerberg juggled sloppiness, snideness, and sincerity--throwing a net around the possibilities of chaos. As a solo artist, he's largely been too sober, in every sense of the word.
"It's a Wonderful Lie" is full of classic Westerberg wordplay ("You can dress to the 8s/You can dress to maim"; "Wearing too much makeup/Not near enough clothes"), but it gets the listener's hopes up unduly. The very next song, "Self-Defense," keeps one interested, if only because it's rare to hear two straight ballads kick off an album. From there, though, the glory is fairly tarnished, limited to two marginally compelling songs. "Final Hurrah" is wooden, but has an ear-catching hesitation in the chorus, and "Fugitive Kind" is almost as good as the toe-tapping shuffles on The Replacements' underrated final album, All Shook Down.
More typical are uncomplicated, up-tempo numbers like "Best Thing That Never Happened" and "Looking Out Forever," or two-chord dirges like "Born for Me" and "Actor in the Street." Westerberg was never a melodically complex guy, but he at least knew how to write brisk, hummable songs; this new work could've been slapped together by any open-mic wannabe. By and large, it's unencumbered by the sort of witty, crystalline lyrics that earned Westerberg so many disciples--mostly he just repeats the titles over and over again.
Some of the tracks on Suicaine Gratification are from Don Was-produced studio sessions, while others are taken from Paul's own home recordings. The album is supposed to hark back to Westerberg's raucous past, except that it doesn't rock nearly enough, and the "rawness" of these stripped-down tunes fails to distinguish them. It's hard to tell anymore whether Westerberg wants to regain his artistic credibility or to catch the hit-record train that he missed back when he carried his acerbic brilliance like an unpunched ticket.
If he did want to cash in, he wouldn't be alone. The fine early-'90s college rock band Buffalo Tom was so desperate for success last year that for their awful album Smitten, they hired a vocalist to add strained, Matchbox 20-style chops to their tribal heartland grunge. Meanwhile, I'm sure every time Westerberg hears Goo Goo Dolls on American Top 40, he wants to take a bite out of his sofa cushions.
Sebadoh, like Paul Westerberg, have had some trouble shaking off their slapdash origins. The band started out as a loose home-recording collective, and as each new album has gotten slicker, their earliest supporters have gotten grumpier. That's the fans' loss. Sebadoh's best records are 1996's Bakesale and 1997's Harmacy, both of which eschew drippy tape pastiches; they're also the first two without annoying drummer/shouter Eric Gaffney.
The core duo of Sebadoh now is singer-guitarist Lou Barlow, with his low, sweet croon and his punctured-heart lyrics, and singer-bassist Jason Loewenstein, with his monotone yelp and his love of power chords. Together, they've mastered the art of the buzzing guitar, the pounding drum, and the minor-key melody. Their music is unassuming and unpretentious, but capable of a dewy-eyed nobility. On their latest album, though, Sebadoh have hit something of a wall. The Sebadoh has its share of winners: "It's All You" and "The Flame" employ a catchy trance-dance beat alongside guitar riffs that hang in the air like the vibrations of a clanging bell; "Tree" is a fast acoustic number with seesaw rhythms and a chorus that seems to dissipate as soon as it escapes Barlow's lips.
The rest of the record is mostly rote. Loewenstein has always been the lesser of the two main Sebadohs, but his contributions here are especially shrill, as if he'd picked up the mantle of the long-departed Gaffney. "Bird in the Hand," "Nick of Time," and "So Long" (all from the first half of the record) pound like a headache. Even Barlow's famed wispy ballads are starting to sound less effortlessly dreamy and more sopping wet.
There's a generational thing at work here too. Westerberg, for all his fabled brattiness, grew up in an era that prized the LP as a definitive, fleshed-out statement. Sebadoh are of the warts-and-all lo-fi movement that applauds endless releases of outtakes and B-sides. Such a value system tends to cripple an artist's judgment--a group may settle for something that might better have been thrown away. For all their recently amped-up craftsmanship, Sebadoh's allegiance to playing off the cuff may be keeping them from developing their songs more.
Is Sebadoh following Paul Westerberg into the corral of irrelevance? Hardly. Any band capable of songs as energized as "Weird" or "Decide" still bears lending an ear to. Call The Sebadoh a momentary lapse, for now. It's a scary thing, though, for a fan to contemplate the almost certain decline of his favorite musicians. Inspiration is so fleeting for so many that we hold our breath every time one of the good ones slips even a little, and we weep when the best of them wander far away.
It's hard to keep hoping for greatness, to care so much. People who quickly cry "sellout" or "has-been" are infuriating because they have it easy--sooner or later, they're bound to be right.
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