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