In Dinosaur Jr., he helped define the underground sound of the `80s. In Sebadoh, he inspired generations of young musicians to make their own home recordings. In Folk Implosion, he proved that a drum machine doesn’t get in the way of good songwriting. And in Sentridoh, he showed us all just how intimate music could really get. Lou Barlow is synonymous with indie rock and, chances are, he made an impact on your own musical listening at some point in time. And yet, after two decades’ worth of writing songs and playing in bands, he never bothered to release anything under his own name. It appears, however, that that has changed.
EMOH, Barlow’s first new full-length release since 2003’s The New Folk Implosion, is released under, simply, Lou Barlow. The title is the most immediately striking aspect of the album, however, because of the many implications it carries. A tongue-in-cheek way of writing “emo?” Home backwards? It’s both, actually. In a way, it marks a sort of homecoming for Barlow, who spent part of the past five years doing projects that left him unsatisfied, such as the aforementioned The New Folk Implosion disc. And the “emo” thing seems to work as well, as Barlow’s lyrics have always been on the confessional side, though not necessarily the “dashboard” side.
The songs on EMOH are unmistakably Barlow’s. His gentle, sensitive baritone glides over the lovely melodies of ballads like “Legendary” and “Royalty.” And, yet, Lou Barlow the rocker comes out in the more densely produced tracks, like “HOME” and “Caterpillar Girl.” And “Morning’s After Me,” one of the album’s quieter tracks, is Lou at his most graceful. All in all, the songs on this collection are among the best he’s written in a long time. Clinging closely to his acoustic guitar, Barlow’s melodies are simple and sweet, harkening back to the days of Bakesale, albeit recorded better, and without Jason Loewenstein’s wail. And, in a way, the fact that EMOH has such a crisp, clean sound is peculiar. It’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s quite a welcome change. But being the diligent home-taper that he is, it’s not exactly the sort of thing we’d expect from Barlow, particularly on a solo release.
But other little surprises pop up all over, like the fuzzy drum beats on “HOME,” the cello on “Puzzle,” the touches of distorted guitar on “If I Could.” And then there’s the cover — a straight-faced version of Ratt’s “Round-n-Round.” In the hands of another, it might have seemed sillier, but Barlow, oddly, makes it his own.
Whether spelled backward or forward, EMOH couldn’t be a more fitting title for Barlow’s latest album. It’s him, stripped down and intimate as always, but this time around, it seems a lot more comfortable. Surprise, surprise. Lou Barlow makes another classic album. Not that his record is impeccable, mind you. But when he puts out albums this good, they’re unforgettable. Welcome home, Lou.
Folk Implosion – One Part Lullaby
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.