Pop: They came, they saw, they missed the boat

NME PREMIER GIGS: SEBADOH, ELLIOTT SMITH, HEFNER, QUASI

THE ASTORIA

LONDON

SEBADOH DO two things early on in their set. First, they cement a reputation for being as sweet as they are spiteful by swearing at a heckler and then apologising. Secondly, after much fumbling and tuning up - don't they have roadies? - they start their first song about 10 minutes after ambling on stage. There goes the claim that they've got their act together.

Sebadoh never change, and it's galling not least because the other three bands on the first of the NME Premier Gigs are on to something. Elliott Smith's backing band, Quasi, play their bustling garage pop with grinning bonhomie. Then drummer Janet Weiss starts bashing away with the same generous hostility she brings to her other band, Sleater-Kinney. Singer/keyboard player Sam Coomes chips in by squeezing some infernal noises from his tatty organ, and their breezy pop gets turned inside out by something nicely irascible.

Three-chord pop nerds Hefner grab the mettle quickly. With singer Darren Hayman's lecherous librarian pose matched by unapologetic guitar abuse and nasal screeching, their tirades against ex-lovers sound as tart as ever.

Elliott Smith shows his rough side, too. "Bottle Up and Explode", Smith sings, and if he hadn't played it so cool at least one person might have done. Apparently, Smith hates being around "winners". He must like Sebadoh, then. Famously, Sebadoh miss their boat every time. They mess up gigs and ponder near-miss relationships in their lyrics. They missed a potentially career-breaking tour with Nirvana, for obvious reasons. So much for main- man Lou Barlow's bite; remember how he formed Sebadoh as revenge against ex-Dinosaur Jr bandmate J. Mascis, or how he satirised indie music in 1992's blazing "Gimme Indie Rock"?

True, their seventh album, The Sebadoh, is their most consistent. New single "Flame" is a looping and bum-wiggling bop infused with samples and a hint of Northern Soul. It's a slight departure for them, while "Love is Stronger" is one of Barlow's gentlest probes at love's mess. Live, though, the rich mix of crunchy post-grunge, warm balladry, and soft, folky pop becomes a string of between-song fumblings and a sound like sludge.

When they finally pull the rug out from under you with the awesome "Beauty of the Ride", it's too late.

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