erasing clouds

Lou Barlow, Emoh

reviewed by dave heaton

If the fuzzy, homemade, "lo fi" recording quality of Lou Barlow's Sentridoh cassettes and CDs back in the 1990s was in part about cutting away any sort of glossiness to get to something that felt real, the same could in a weird way be said about Barlow's new album Emoh, though the recording approach was quite different. This is "hi fi", if you will: clean and crisp. But that same crispness, and the way Barlow sings more clearly than ever, ultimately has a similar effect of stripping away what's unnecessary to get to the heart of the song. Even though he's adding textures to many of the songs, from cello to electronics (which make a couple songs instantly echo Folk Implosion), the overall approach is still quite sparse and raw. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this is one of his clearest-sounding albums, yet it feels most like a companion to some of his cloudiest-sounding ones. Even as it sounds like a genuine 'ready-for-Prime-Time', 'put-me-on-the-radio' effort, Emoh also feels very much in step with what Barlow's been about from the beginning, putting his guts out there in a song.

If Mary Lou Lord ever runs out of Bevis Frond songs to cover, Emoh could become her new songbook. I'm not being sarcastic; Barlow's songs this time around are very much akin to the kind of intelligent, honest, sensitive, carefully crafted songs that she likes to sing. Listen to "Puzzle" or "Monkey Begun" and it's impossible not to think of Richard Thompson, yet the content of the songs is very much like that of countless Sebadoh and Sentridoh songs, though with an extra level of wisdom gained through experience.

It's actually quite weird to me how much Emoh feels both like a typical Lou Barlow album and like an especially coherent and accomplished one. Part of the appeal of even the most complicated and muddled collection of Sentridoh or Lou B. home recordings was that in the middle of a mess of sounds and ideas there'd be a perfect melody, usually accompanied by a clear expression of loneliness, love, lust or anger. There's many of those moments here, without the clutter, starting right with the gorgeous yet oddly commercial-sounding first song "Holding Back the Year." Throughout the album Barlow sounds as tormented by demons and contradictory impulses as ever, yet the overall clarity and level of consistency of the songs make it feel like a genuine new beginning. "Monkey Begun" contains both the lines "for balance and control / a battle rages in my soul" and "I feel like I've just begun / life has just begun", and both represent the feelings of the album overall.

Even when he's steering close to 'serious singer-songwriter' mode, Lou Barlow is always keeping a sense of humor and taste for the unconventional - witness his earnest cover of Ratt's "Round and Round" or the album-ending ballad about a cat. Emoh may on the surface look like a more purposefully 'adult' version of Barlow's music, but in the end it's more like a well-defined elucidation on styles and themes from throughout his career. The title Emoh spells home backwards, and Barlow does sound at home here, even as his lyrics, as always, represent a searching for comfort and understanding. Yet the title Emoh also reads as a nod toward the fact that Barlow's been doing for years what all the so-called 'emo' bands are supposedly doing, but better - taking his feelings and pouring them into music.


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