It’s been over six years since Lou Barlow, the sad bastard prince of indie rock, made nice with J. Mascis, a détente that yielded three surprisingly lively Dinosaur Jr. albums and concert gigs considerably larger than any Barlow saw with Dino Jr. or Sebadoh the first time around. Due to the current wave of indie nostalgia, however, it’s now much more profitable to detune your guitar and resurrect old romantic disappointments for sympathetic strangers, and few people do that better than Barlow.
Sadly, Sebadoh’s Defend Yourself lacks the cohesion, urgency, and sense of discovery of the band’s apex, 1994’s Bakesale, which grafted British invasion, punk, folk, and perverse blues into a set of uniformly ace tracks. Every song coursed with primal heartache, of sad youth careening ever closer to tragedy. You could hum it, but always with a lump in the throat. It’s a touchstone of its era that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the eras—the late ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—that informed its sound.
Defend Yourself still suggests a creator with an obsessively huge record collection, only the heady variation of explored genres seems more boilerplate, a sense of variety for variety’s sake rather than a desire to put a unique stamp on old musical tropes. This isn’t to say there’s nothing here worth exploring. The standout opening track, “I Will,” is unequivocally wonderful: Starting with minor-key electric folk, the song blooms into a garage-pop stunner reminiscent of Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” with extra dollops of neurotic mournfulness. To a lesser extent, a few others here capture Bakesale’s ineffable combination of despondency, hopefulness, and über-catchy melodies: “Oxygen” and “State of Mind” are bent-but-buoyant Beatles-in-Germany-style rock in the vein of “Skull” and “Magnet’s Coil,” respectively, while “Defend Yourself” and “Final Days” are bitterly thrashing rock exuding raw heartache like another Bakesale song, “Not Too Confused.”
The rest of Defend Yourself runs the gamut between workmanlike and sounding a little bored: “Inquiries” is a smirking James Gang-style pastiche that should’ve been left for a future completists-only compilation; “Can’t Depend” is alt-country every bit as whiny and indulgent as Son Volt at their worst; and “Beat” sounds like road-weary indie veterans indifferently covering Neil Young. Ironically, most of the album’s weakest tracks recall Dinosaur Jr. in their out-of-gas late period without Barlow, where feedback, plodding drums, and lazy guitar solos (poorly) masked a dearth of ideas. This suggests that, while reuniting with that band has been good for Barlow’s bank statement, it’s been a bit of a drag on the gnarled genius that made us miss Sebadoh in the first place.