[20 July 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Lou Barlow has been keeping himself pretty busy these past few years. In addition to performing his bass duties in the reformed Dinosaur Jr., he has released two well-received solo albums, 2005’s Emoh and last year’s Goodnight Unknown. He toured in 2007 with the classic line-up of Sebadoh, which was his ongoing concern during the ‘90s, and is hitting the road again this summer with the Missingmen, which is Mike Watt’s backing band featuring Tom Watson on guitar and Raul Morales on drums. Perhaps as a sampler for Barlow fans as to what they might expect from this more recent line-up at gigs, Merge Records has issued an eight song, 30-minute digital download EP called = Sentridoh III. The EP features four new songs, two electrified versions of songs from Barlow’s recent solo albums (“Caterpillar Girl” and “Praise”), a new version of a song that Barlow recorded with his Sentridoh side-project in the early ‘90s (“Losercore”), and a cover of delta blues guitarist Skip James’ “I’m So Glad”.
By calling this digital album = Sentridoh III, Barlow (or whomever named the thing) was being a bit cheeky. Sentridoh was Barlow’s home for lo-fi, acoustic re-readings of his much more rollicking material he originally recorded with Sebadoh. = Sentridoh III is actually the inverse of this formula. The generally quieter, acoustic, pensive songs that Barlow has retrieved from his solo material are smashed on the indie rock here, rather than toned down. Perhaps by adding the III annotation, Barlow wanted listeners to recall Sebadoh’s much beloved III, as well. In any event, = Sentridoh III is an interesting and worthy addition to the canon of Lou Barlow.
Much of the music contained within has a fairly polished, somewhat psychedelic and somewhat cowpunk sound that isn’t too far removed from the noodlings of Watt’s the Minutemen, without the cryptic lyrics and odd angularities, the similarity of which is particularly evident on the reconstituted “Losercore”. Most notably on the triumvirate of new songs that open the album, Barlow lets his hair down and rocks out in a serious way, calling to mind his main paycheck at the moment, being in Dinosaur Jr., just without the fuzziness or stoner intonation. The jams are particularly evident on opener “Apologize”, which starts out as painting a dust-swept panorama before Barlow and his band kick down the door and crank the amps up to 11.
The real highlights of the album, however, are the reimagings of the solo songs, which quite possibly eclipse the originals. “Caterpillar Girl” has a much improved flow by focusing squarely on its fluid bass line and by speeding up the tempo (it clocks in about 30 seconds shorter than the original). “Praise” in its original format on Goodnight Unknown was a bit of a one-note plodding clunker. Here, the arrangement is expanded with swirling drums and a dreamy electric guitar line. With = Sentridoh III, Barlow is making up for sins of commission on his solo outings.
The only song that doesn’t really work is the cover of “I’m So Glad”, which is a klatch of cymbals, bells, keyboards and heavily reverbed vocals that sonically goes against the grain of what preceded it. As the final song on the album, it simply feels like add-on filler to bring this EP up to the half-hour mark. (However, being that this is a digital download, you could always “edit” it out by choosing not to siphon it into your PC.) In any event, = Sentridoh III is a great gift to Barlow fans as a stop-gap before we get either another new Barlow solo album or a new Dinosaur Jr. record. It makes a great tour souvenir, and it would be a shame if this wasn’t available as a CD at the merch table on the way out of the club. = Sentridoh III is not Barlow at his most essential (see early ‘90s Sebadoh), but as a reimaging of the sound of his solo records and a sort of odds ‘n sods compilation, it is a lot better than it has any right to be. If you like Lou Barlow, = Sentridoh III will definitely invite you to hit your head on the punk rock, hard and repeatedly.