'90s Music Strikes Back: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Sebadoh
The arrival of the fall season always brings with it a feeling of the past being renewed. For every homecoming parade and harvest yield, there is a palpable sense that one is obligated to look back, not only over the past year, which is rapidly coming to a close, but also to much older moments long since committed to memory or jotted down in now-faded script.
For the purpose of this essay, let’s revisit a time 20 years ago, before the Internet had worked its way into nearly every home, before smart phones brought the Internet into nearly every pocket, before texting, before Bieber, and before “twerking” became a national buzzword.
1993 was a tumultuous year in American and world history. From the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, to the standoff at the Branch Dividian compound in Waco, Texas, tragedy often shared space in the headlines alongside glimmers of hope, as evidenced by the peace accord that was reached in September of 1993 by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, as well as the December signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement by then-President Bill Clinton.
But amidst all the good news and bad news there was also music. Two years removed from the moment that punk “broke” into the mainstream via the release of Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind album and still months away from that sad day in April of 1994 when the alt-rock curtain started to come down, music in 1993 existed in an isolated window of time.
Perhaps the most-hyped album of ’93 was Nirvana’s third record In Utero. A 20th anniversary edition of the album is even being released this week. And perhaps now, with all the B-sides, demos, and remasterings of the original material seeing the light of day, proper weight can be given to the significance this record had back in a year when Kurt Cobain was still alive.
First and foremost, much like 20th anniversary re-release of Nevermind, this reissue of Nirvana’s final studio album is stocked full with riches. The “Super Deluxe Edition” even features a recording of the group’s frequently-lauded “Live and Loud” concert from December 13, 1993. However, for hardcore fans the real focus is on the two never-before released instrumentals “Forgotten Tune” and the aptly-titled “Jam.”
Though highly hyped, each of these long-lost cuts is ragged and unfinished, begging the thought that the bottom of Cobain and company’s alt-rock barrel might have finally been reached. Indeed, the real prizes are outtakes of album cuts, like a more R.EM.-influenced take on “All Apologies,” and drummer Dave Grohl’s first solo rendering of the B-side “Marigold.” Sadly, Nirvana would never get to realize the potential showed by such songs’ drastically different-sounding versions, but now listeners can rejoice in the group’s defiant last gasp.
Of course after the dust finally started to settle on the time when Seattle rock ruled the world, there was still one band from the scene that was left standing – Pearl Jam. In 1993, there was probably no other group that understood the pressure Nirvana was under to record a follow-up to its breakthrough album better than Eddie Vedder and company. After riding in on the grunge tidal wave with its 1991 debut Ten, the band released its sophomore effort, Vs., in 1993 and watched over a million copies of the album fly off shelves in just its first week of availability.
20 years later, the record still holds up. Sure tracks like “Daughter,” “Animal” and “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town” now receive airplay on classic rock radio stations instead of Top 40 outlets, but little of the record’s vitriol and aggression has waned. And the band responsible for such material isn’t settling into elder-statesmen status just yet either.
Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album Lightning Bolt is set to be released in just a few short weeks on October 14th. Featuring the singles “Mind Your Manners” and “Sirens,” the album is already garnering praise for nodding to the past with a frenetic pace on some songs and for employing a mature vibe on others, proof positive that the band members are ready at times to embrace their status as survivors.
Watch the official video for “Sirens” by Pearl Jam here:
Speaking of survivors, there are few, if any, musicians that can lay claim to being fired from one band and intentionally disbanding another, only to rejoin and reform each group respectively with no drop-off in the quality of output and critical recognition. However, by reuniting with the other original members of Dinosaur Jr and by reconvening his other project Sebadoh over the course of the past decade, former Westfield resident Lou Barlow has accomplished such a feat. It just didn’t happen overnight.
In 1993, Barlow was several years removed from his bitter ouster from Dinosaur, and his new band Sebadoh was on the verge of a notable period of success. The group would release its final album recorded with founding member Eric Gaffney, Bubble and Scrape, during the course of the year. But as the decade wore on, the release of acclaimed albums like Bakesale and Harmacy would bring the band even greater recognition in indie rock circles and beyond.
Then after the tour for Sebadoh’s 1999 album The Sebadoh, the group went on an extended hiatus. Barlow had a new project dubbed The Folk Implosion, and group member Jason Lowenstein was hard at work on solo material.
Various Sebadoh reunions started to occur as early as 2003. But after Barlow rejoined the original lineup Dinosaur Jr in 2005, things really started to kick into high gear. In 2011, Sebadoh, now consisting of Barlow, Lowenstein and new drummer Bob D’Amico, hit the road for a tour to promote reissues of Bakesale and Harmacy. And just one year later, the band began releasing its first new music since The Sebadoh.
Fortunately for ‘90s music fans, that release, The Secret EP, has proven not to be just a one-off. In fact, the band released, Defend Yourself, its first full studio album in 14 years just last week. Featuring indie rock gems like “I Will” as well as more alt-country influenced tracks like “Inquiries,” the release is more than just a nostalgic tour through the halls of college radio’s past, at times it even plays like a hopeful wish for the future.
Watch the official video for “I Will” by Sebadoh here:
Perhaps the chill in the air that comes with crisp autumn mornings has always existed as a reminder. Every time we pull our collars up to shield ourselves from the change in temperature, or maybe every time we see the leaves change color and fall, we are being told to look back. Though 1993 was a flash in time, 12 short months split into 365 days, the echoes of that period can still be heard today. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sebadoh – the music of the ‘90s lives on in the 21st century. So look back or lean forward, it makes no difference. The season is changing, but the soundtrack stays the same.
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