“The present-day composer refuses to die!,” claimed the avant-garde Edgar Varesé in 1921. Forty-five years later, a young Frank Zappa took his words seriously, printed them on the sleeve of Freak Out!, and then lived the rest of his life quietly bearing witness to the truth of his hero’s claim. Self-releasing composer-cum-performers like Zappa and Prince make it seem as if Varesé’s dictum was prophetic; they have taken advantage of their cottage labels to release album upon album of music deemed — at least by their fans — as the stuff of genius. And while it’s hard to argue that these two artists rank high in the pantheon of modern music, these two present-day composers just might be the exceptions that prove the opposite of Varesé’s rule, namely: usually, the present-day composer needs to use his better judgement.
Take the case of the self-proclaimed “Man Who Launched a Thousand Home Recordings”, Lou Barlow. Barlow’s own refusal to stagnate artistically has led him from an early gig as bassist in Dinosaur Jr. through his own band Sebadoh and his lo-fi home taping project Sentridoh to a top 40 hit “Natural One” with the band Folk Implosion. Unfazed by commercial “success”, Barlow has moved past all those old bands to a new collaboration, the unimaginatively titled New Folk Implosion. [Somewhere along the way, Barlow has also spent time in the ridiculously titled Deluxx Folk Implosion as well.] On the one hand, it seems appropriate to laud Barlow for the perseverance and inspiration that have fed his prolific output of over twenty albums; on the other hand, one might wonder whether Lou Barlow has ever had an idea he not only recorded, but then released.
Guided By Voice’s driving force, Robert Pollard, created “The Fading Captain Series” as an outlet for allowing his non-mainstream releases to be acquired by obsessive fans. While Pollard’s productivity is comparable to Barlow’s, their recent releases are not. The former’s The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet, number 24 in its series, is intended for a small audience of hard-core fanatics; alternatively, Barlow’s The New Folk Implosion, is an album for the masses. In all fairness, Barlow did say of his new project, “I’m doing it for myself . . . it’s an expression of something I did with my friends”. However, upon the record’s release, Barlow’s record label went into full promotional tilt and his band hit the road as a headlining act. As such, the most unimaginatively-titled The New Folk Implosion calls to be judged not as appendix in the annals of an unfettered artiste , but as just one of the hundreds of records to hit the shelves on any given Tuesday.
It is like any other album that The New Folk Implosion should be reviewed, and it is by this criteria that it fails to impress. Musically, the soundscape of The New Folk Implosion is a lo-fi grunge; the sound is akin to a power trio who have turned the power down a notch. Barlow’s voice is in the same baritone-ish range as Eddie Vedder, and it is only the home recording sound and the solitary guitar that remind the ear it’s not hearing Pearl Jam outtakes. From the opening moments of the leading track, “Fuse”, the musical dictionary of The New Folk Implosion is pretty much in place: muddied drums under distorted guitar give way to a melodic bass line highlighted by a guitar lick that falls just shy of catchy. Lyrically, Barlow has some interesting ideas; creating a “Creature of Salt” that dissolves in front of your eyes is almost as interesting as asking the question, “What brand of skin / Do you occupy?”. Unfortunately, Barlow’s follow-up query is the trite, “Who is that smile on your face?”; more ironically, said creature dissolving ultimately shares remorsefully that he “did what I could / It wasn’t enough”.
If the likely lead-single off The New Folk Implosion is the catchy pop-tune “Leaving It Up to Me”, the true highlight is “Pearl”, an acoustic-driven number strong enough to be forgiven for its prom-theme bass and drum entry on the big chorus. Away from the effects of big ringing bass tones and an [all-too often thin and] distorted guitar runs, “Pearl” shines because its straightforward acoustic setting allows Barlow’s voice, in confessional tone, to sound its most honest. In plaintive farewell to his love, Barlow invents the album’s finest couplet, “I couldn’t make you happen / So I set this house on fire.” “Pearl” comes across as a song that Barlow simply let be; it’s opposite is the lovely-starting “Coral”, which soon descends into a morass of art-rock pretension mixed with studio trickery, highlighted by the all-too-hip chorus, “Shed my wings / And learn to fly”.
“It seems like that way I influence people is more on this theoretical, philosophical way,” Barlow says, “and they seem to pick up on the fact that it’s about empowerment, about being empowered in your personal life . . . and if you’re a musician, then being empowered to record their [sic] own songs or express themselves artistically.” The greatest impression The New Folk Implosion leaves is that of the intrepid nature of the artist who continues to create. And while its high points are nice and its low points aren’t offensive, The New Folk Implosion is not the kind of album one would likely choose to listen to over the Pearl Jam and Paul Westerberg records that are similar and, frankly, better. For even if the present-day composer refuses to die, that doesn’t mean all of us need to buy their albums.