Lou Barlow's 'EMOH' Is Another Quiet Triumph in a Long History of Humble Genius

Photo: Eric Fermin Perez / Courtesy of Merge Records

Re-released on vinyl to celebrate its 15th anniversary, Lou Barlow's EMOH offers a wide array of indie rock charms.

Lou Barlow


31 July 2020

Lou Barlow is one of the lesser-sung and most praiseworthy figures in the US musical underground. Cutting his teeth in Deep Wound, Barlow grew uncomfortable with the hidebound strictures of hardcore punk. Every scene, no matter how anarchic, has its authoritarian personalities too keen on policing others' purity. Moving on, Barlow, with his comrades in Dinosaur Jr, forged a rough 'n' ready merger of hard rock and punk that would receive a spit 'n' polish before propelling Nirvana into the stratosphere. If this wasn't enough, Barlow then kickstarted the lo-fi scene with his next band Sebadoh (alongside side-projects Sentridoh and the Folk Implosion).

That switchover in the late 1980s saw him come into his remarkable streak. There's no one among his contemporaries — perhaps Beck in his 'three albums in a year' 1994 pomp — who was quite so prolific and so consistently good for so long. Releasing hundreds of songs, Barlow has tossed away gems like "K-Sensa My" or "Pound My Skinny Head" on home acoustic compilations. He's buried awesomeness like "Crystal Crossed" and "Saltwater Garden" as B-sides, and maintained a spray of EPs and "singles in name only". Barlow also unfolded a series of duos with John Davis, while maintaining Sebadoh's consistent release schedule through until 1999.

It's not unfair to speak of his decade-and-a-half run in the same breath as the Lennon/McCartney magic of the early-to-mid-1960s. He's a songsmith seemingly unable to set pen to paper without conjuring something as hysterically funny as "Soul Mate" ("I'll probably have to have sex with a lot of girls before my soulmate reveals herself to me"), a rallying cry for resilience like "Beauty of the Ride" ("I've made mistakes before, I'll make the same again"), or hazy gorgeousness like "Skull" ("So let's go quickly, no we go slow, let's go chasing dragons through the snow.")

EMOH, re-released to celebrate its 15th anniversary, is billed as Barlow's first album under his own name. Perhaps it's knit picking, but that's a bit misleading given it's debatable given Barlow's slippery stream of productivity (1994's Lou Barlow and His Sentridoh compilation? A 1993 EP and compilation both billed as Louis Barlow's Acoustic Sentridoh? Another compilation as Lou B's Acoustic Sentridoh? Another as Sentridoh/Louis Barlow?) Whatever! It's certainly true that while his name on the cover doesn't mark any special change in method, EMOH was the most formally conceived "album" with his name on the cover released up to that point. The record is comparable to 1999's One Part Lullaby, by Barlow's band the Folk Implosion, matching its pristine production values, absence of straight-up rock, and its overall tidiness.

Best foot forward, EMOH opens with "Holding Back the Year", a summer-scented testament to Barlow's gift as a composer. Buried within surface simplicity, there's so much grown through these few minutes: the delicate patter of handclaps beneath a multi-tracked guitar, filigree touches on a second guitar, an electronic hum adding warmth, two-then-three voices singing harmony. Another aspect of Barlow's ability comes through on "Caterpillar Girl", where he spills lyrics with the kind of internal rhyming that hip hop heads dissect online. "Hit me like a kick to a thickening gut, the beat has gone beaten me up." It's a line improved further by his perfect enunciation. Even a short phrase like "could you be original caterpillar girl", is split down to individual syllables to enhance its effect.

EMOH has numerous quixotic decisions that elevate it beyond the strict frameworks of lesser singer-songwriters. Barlow turns Ratt's quintessential hair metal tune "Round and Round" into a hollowed-out skeleton, a decision that emphasizes the tension within the lyrics. Elsewhere, there's a burst of radio tuning on "Caterpillar Girl" that nods toward Barlow's past liking for punctuating albums with semi-structured noise. On "Royalty", a fresh passage emerges after the last note sounds, a spindly little tune marooned all alone splicing together mumbling voices and a subdued wheeze of accordion — it's an offcut that Barlow could readily expand into a full song. Instead, it ghosts in here as a break from the generally gleaming surfaces of the record.

Photo: Eric Fermin Perez / Courtesy of Merge Records

While there are no bad songs, there is a mid-album run where things settle into a familiar lovelorn and beaten down air. That's not a heavy criticism to say Barlow leans into his comfort zone for a spell, especially on an album with the word "home" hidden in plain sight. What stands out are the enlivening touches that distinguish everything he does: suitcase percussion on "If I Could", a toy piano on "Monkey Begun", the outro on "Morning's After Me" rising to a canter behind chanting and vocal effects. Various friends are deployed tactically — as on "Confused" where Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein and the Folk Implosion's Imaad Wasif help create a spacey shine and twinkle. The album closes with "The Ballad of Daykitty", which would be a low-stakes domestic finale if it wasn't so darn winsome, catchy, and good-natured.

A personal favorite, I first heard Barlow play "Mary" at London's Dingwalls venue in 2005, and it made such an impression that I tapped lyrics into my phone then sang whatever I could recall all the way home so I wouldn't forget (and haven't). "Immaculate conception…Yeah, right" is a stellar opening line. From there the tale of Mary's secret lover unfolds with humor ("Blame it on an angel, they'll believe. Joseph will wonder, but you know he won't leave"), as well as a very sweet romantic sensibility ("They all love you like I still do, magic in the air swirling all around you").

Big lines commence as trumpeted announcements betraying disbelief at Mary's chutzpah, then descend to murmured asides or behind-the-hand confessions given the obvious dangers. That carefully calibrated delivery makes the best-known story in the world suddenly feel intimate, human, and deeply personal. As a sidebar, the liner notes declare EMOH to be "Loobiecore Vol. 2", a sequel to a 2002 predecessor which featured "What Would Jesus Do?". You could even point further back in Barlow's lineage to "Jealous of Jesus", which appeared under both the Sebadoh and Sentridoh names.

While a great album to revisit, if you already own it, then the only reason to revisit it is that (a) it's excellent (b) this reissue is on vinyl. If you're not a vinyl fetishist, then there are no extras. However, the digital release does include eight demos. It's a disappointment to anyone who loves Barlow's maximalist instincts that saw, for example, 18 further tracks added to III's existing 23, and Bubble & Scrape going from a tidy 17 songs to a 32 track deluxe reissue behemoth. There's even the semi-joke of Sebadoh's Four Song CD being ten songs long. Ultimately, if you prefer something more carefully curated, then EMOH is manageable, laced with heavyweight additions to Barlow's enviable back catalog. The record displays numerous sides of his modestly worn but undeniably well-earned position as a statesman of the modern indie rock scene.

Photo: Eric Fermin Perez / Courtesy of Merge Records






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.