Indie rock, you’ve gone soft. It’s hard to tell precisely when it happened, but it was probably sometime after Archers of Loaf broke up, Fender started charging thousands of dollars for Jaguar guitars and Jeff Mangum went into hiding (presumably with J.D. Salinger, Elvis Presley and the Lindbergh baby). Regardless of why or when, indie rock in 2007 has lost its grit, misplaced its edge and turned into Voxtrot.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear The Freed Man, the 80+ minute 1989 debut by Sebadoh, the brainchild of lo-fi rockers Lou Barlow and Eric Gaffney. Even though it would be two more years until the band switched on the distortion pedals and really rocked on III, The Freed Manis a testament to the delightful griminess of late-’80s, early-’90s indie rock.
Working with a cheap Tascam four-track, ragtag guitars and some truly unforgiving microphones, Barlow and Gaffney compiled 52 intimate folk songs that sound as if they were dunked in dirty bong water just prior to recording. Barlow’s unvarnished lyrics are direct, self-deprecating and honest without drifting into the empty artiness that usually comes along with the label “lo-fi.” “Soulmate” and “Jealous Evil” build up and then break down in less than two minutes, and stumble across stoned melodies in the process. It’s this dirty kind of accidental beauty that the ’90s did so well.
Despite the fact that the guitars were out of tune and the tracks sound like they were recorded in a linoleum-floored cave, this is how most songs begin — cheap, lazy demos recorded in the privacy of somebody's home. And after listening to the processed tripe those songs often become, it might be best to take a page from Sebadoh’s handbook and leave those imperfect songs in rugged, bedroom form. Modern day indie rockers take note.