Before Robert Pollard, there was Lou Barlow. Like Pollard today, the Barlow of old released damn near everything he ever recorded, committing to tape songs both long and short, worthwhile and not, all in the name of full musical disclosure.
Unlike Pollard, however, Barlow had the blessing (or curse) of doing so during the height of the cassette tape. As he was leaving and/or being kicked out of Dinosaur Jr., Barlow already was experimenting with his own brand of quiet, confessional songs built on rudimentary strummed guitar chords. As if indulging split personalities (or at least an internal editor with a good ear), Barlow released some of these under the name Sebadoh, and some as Sentridoh. Sebadoh was basically home to his work with Jason Loewenstein and Eric Gaffney, while Sentridoh was Lou solo. At times, the difference was negligible, whether judged in terms of song-quality, sound quality, or performance.
But as Sebadoh evolved to become a powerful little rock trio, Barlow seemed to need the indulgence of Sentridoh as an outlet for a seemingly endless store of songs. While he was crafting some of the most incisive pop songs in indie rock on increasingly polished discs like Bubble and Scrape and Bakesale, he adhered to the lo-fi aesthetic of cassette releases on Shrimper, 7″ singles on a variety of labels, and eventually, CD collections on Smells Like, Mint, City Slang, and, again, Shrimper.
Cassettes were an ideal format for Barlow. The ease of reproduction meant he could crank out tune after tune and release them quickly and efficiently, unconstrained by the thoughts of collaborators or record companies. The low quality allowed on cassette — most if not all of these songs were recorded on 4-track — meant he could record any time, anywhere, not forced to wait for studio availability. True fans allowed him the indulgence, holding Sentridoh to a different standard. Those enamored of Barlow’s songs were willing to indulge him his excesses if the payoff was more songs.
The guiding principles of Sentridoh meant there were gems to be plucked from among a lot of lesser material, and as such, much of the best of that music has made its way to CD in the form of those above-mentioned collections. The Original Losing Losers collected much of the original tape, Losers, while Winning Losers, Lou Barlow and Friends, and Lou Barlow and his Sentridoh gathered stray tracks from other cassettes and singles, as well as previously unreleased songs.
Despite the closet-clearing appearance of those many releases, other tracks were left uncollected on CD until now. Shrimper dips another toe into the digital waters with Lou B’s Wasted Pieces ’87-’93, which collects the bulk of the Wasted Pieces and Most of the Worst and Some of the Best tapes.
These 31 tracks offer a good representation of what Barlow’s Sentridoh had to offer. Some of this is unlistenable — one-note jokes without any actual notes and noisy sound collages that might have been fun to create, but are angrily speaker-shredding when played. Barlow during this era still seemed unsure of his ability to make quiet, acoustic music. For every song that maintains a state of grace throughout, he offers a pretty song like “Raise Your Head” that dissolves in a cacophony of found sound and tape manipulation. It’s not the singer or the song, but the songwriter’s lack of faith in allowing his material to stand alone that seems to mar otherwise compelling tracks.
But much of this, particularly for hard-core Barlow fans, is a treasure, rescuing tracks long lost to those boxes of cassettes in the basement. Why did Barlow decide these songs should become part of the digital realm a decade later? It’s anybody’s guess. Those fans will herald the disc’s release, but others will not — should not, in fact — spring for what is at best a curiosity.