Perfect Flailing: Sebadoh, “Hillbilly II” (1996)

Simon Smith flailing on guitar 2Simon Smith, June 2015

Something paradoxical and tragic happened once we picked up guitars and started discharging our energy upon the world. We began in freedom and ended in chains. (I feel sure Rousseau would have keyed his theory of civilization to this phenomenon if his parents had given him a Silvertone.)[1] We began by striking the strings just when we felt like it, as loud as we wanted, happily spasmodic; we ended in subjection to meter, grim guitar soldiers playing constant eighth notes like this:

The Breeders, “Cannonball”

Of course it still felt good to do that. In fact it felt like a great solution to the problem of finding a form in which pleasurable flailing could go on for long intervals in company with other players. But there was no getting around the mechanical doom, the loss of spontaneity when that pattern locks in.

Is there a way to play in time, predictably and repetitively, but retaining more of the joy of first flailing?

I think I’ve found it!

The second Sebadoh instrumental on Harmacy, Jason Loewenstein’s underappreciated “Hillbilly II,” rollicks perfectly in the guitar-and-bass part. You have to wait a little for it: a preamble of whacked chords creates suspense as to just how spontaneous the playing is going to be, because the chords are interesting, obviously premeditated:

“Hillbilly II” 1

But then the main line that follows sounds like just what you might play loudly on the spur of the moment. Dotted notes[2] give a surging, non-mechanical feeling to the repetition, still in a sunny simple-minded way:

“Hillbilly II” 2

There are some eighth-note foursomes along the way, too, so you don’t miss out on the real pleasure of bratatatat.

I had considered this track for my canon of nifty little instrumentals (it gets points for coming in at 1:59), but I’ve decided its effect is more naive than nifty. The optimized form of young flailing is the nail it’s hitting on the head.


[1] As it is, Rousseau’s thesis hangs in the air abstractly: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” The Social Contract, trans. G. D. H. Cole (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950), p. 3.

[2] Dotted notes: instead of dividing a beat evenly between, say, two eighth notes, a dotted eighth note is lengthened by half—the dot signifies adding a sixteenth note’s worth of time to the eighth—and, in turn, the second note is shortened to a sixteenth. Now the pair of notes is skipping instead of trotting (we’re “o f f  to s e e  the” wizard).  Since the dotted note is three times the length of the short second note, there’s a triplet feel of circling round while advancing.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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One Response to Perfect Flailing: Sebadoh, “Hillbilly II” (1996)

  1. john cummins says:

    You certainly do lovely reviews much better than the dreadful loser, dinosaur, lamestream rag Rolling Stone. You should get paid for your reviews, not that I am volunteering. I would say the second lick is somewhat King’s Xish. Also, Rousseau was basically wrong in every one of his philosophies, IMNSHO, and lead to the French Revolution and many other ills since. I guess when you go against Calvin, directly the result is dead people!

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