June 24, 2002

Jason Loewenstein "At Sixes and Sevens"

Be honest, readers: how many of you were on pins and needles, waiting impatiently for Jason Loewenstein to release a solo record? How many of you actually know who Jason Loewenstein is? Well, here's a brief history lesson: Jason was one-third of indie-rock stalwarts Sebadoh, a band that posited the strongest arguments both for and against creative democracy. His songs were a compromise between front man Lou Barlow's lovelorn rambling and drummer Eric Gaffney's tuneless mania. Despite being arguably the band's most talented musician, he never received nearly as much credit as the other two. After Eric left the band, Jason merely moved from being the third wheel to being the second banana. Even when Lou's creativity began to stagnate on the last few Sebadoh albums, few people noticed that Jason was beginning to write better songs than him. Now that Sebadoh is on hiatus, it seems that Jason finally has the opportunity to prove himself. At Sixes and Sevens, his solo debut, showcases the great songwriter that everyone should have known Loewenstein was since Sebadoh's 1993 masterwork Bubble and Scrape. Picture a whole album of songs as good as "Prince-S," "Careful," and "Bird in the Hand." This album's even BETTER than that.

This is a solo record in all aspects of the word: Jason wrote, played, sang, and recorded every note in his eight-track home studio. The problem with most one-man bands is that there's always at least one instrument that they're obviously weaker at than the rest, yet they insist on playing it solely for the egotistical pleasure of saying that they played EVERYTHING. I dare you to guess which instrument is Jason's Achilles heel. He is equally agile on guitar, bass, and drums, easily creating the illusion of a fine-tuned, well-rehearsal garage band. He knows when each instrument should shut up or show off, and when they should play against each other or with each other. He gets off on the dissonance that occurs when guitars are slightly out of tune with each other. Examples include the Sonic Youth-style arpeggios of "Casserole" and the Polvo-meets-Beefheart riffs of "Angles" and "Funerals." His vocals have improved since the last Sebadoh album: listen to how well his falsetto imitates the melodies his guitar plays on "Circles" and "Roswell to Jerusalem." Last but not least, this album is the cleanest eight-track recording I've heard since Spoon's 1996 debut Telephono. Any of these songs could be played on the radio without the listener experiencing an obvious drop in fidelity.

While doing research on this record, I discovered that At Sixes and Sevens is an idiom that means "at a point of disorder or confusion." What an appropriate name for an album that seems to revolve around the concepts of ending friendships and changing priorities. Jason approaches these topics with an almost plainspoken candor that keeps things open-ended without being vague. "Casserole" examines how things that seem inconsequential can end up causing great destruction. The protagonist of "Angles" expresses his frustration about making the same mistakes over and over again. The entire first verse of "Mistake" reads like a hand-written apology to a friend he has wronged, whereas "I'm a Shit" takes that same friend to task for being too bitter to forgive him. On "Circles" and "Funerals," Jason's anger is also directed toward self-destructive people. At Sixes and Sevens closes with the anthem "Transform," during which Jason finally cries out for change. It is during this song that he sings my favorite lyric on the whole album: "YouÍre hungry for the Tascam/But you can't afford the tape." Since I am also a homemade one-man band, this lyric particularly resonates with me. The vocals maintain a consistently ambivalent tone: too angry to mumble, but too world-weary to scream. Jason's falsetto on "Circles" sounds more like a sigh than a soar.

If the previous paragraph makes this record sound like heavy going, don't worry. For most of the record, the tempos remain brisk enough (and the songs catchy enough) that you'll be too busy banging your head to pay attention to what Jason's singing. Yes, by the time the appropriately named instrumental "H/M (Heavy Metal)" comes on, the detuned riffs will give you your fair share of neck cramps. At Sixes and Sevens is the album I always knew Jason had in him. Hearing indie-rock done this well makes me nostalgic for when I was in middle school, when "alternative rock" lived up to its name, and there was actually a middle ground between being incredibly famous and incredibly obscure. Pavement raised a ruckus on the Tonight Show, Sebadoh had videos on VH1, Live were covering Guided by Voices songs, and Sonic Youth actually entered the Top 40. How many of you remember THAT?

---Sean Padilla

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