September 6, 2015
Lou Barlow /// Brace The Wave
Inside the early Sebadoh CDs, on the very last page of the insert, there’s an address. An actual street address for some house in Northampton, MA. A place one imagines the whole band may have lived in together. Sharing a domicile like some twisted pot smoking version of The Monkees. I remember looking in the Sebadoh III CD booklet when I was about 15 and thinking, “That’s right down the street from my Aunt Sally and Uncle Tommy’s house. I should drop my demo tape in their mailbox next Easter.” I thought that maybe one of them would dig my stuff and I would get “discovered.” That I’d get a call from Eric Gaffney at 1 am, breathing heavily, asking me to open for them at their next Pearl St show before launching into a rant about record royalties and Bruce Pavitt’s choice of facial hair. I thought it might be a possibility. There was such a strong connection formed when I absorbed those first three albums that I felt it was destiny, and the fact that they were from my area made it all the more real to me. If nothing else, it was at least proof that someone could make it out of there, against all odds, with their weird brand of noise.
The stuff that hit me the hardest and always stayed with me was the rawest sounding stuff. The songs that sounded as if they had been recorded on a Radio Shack cassette with a Radio Shack mic and dropped in a gasoline-coated rain puddle in a Radio Shack parking lot. Weed Forestin’. The Freed Man. Winning Losers. Even that weird one with the Brian Adams cover and that fucking “Puffin’ On A Pot Pipe” song on it. That was the stuff that I related to the most because it was free and unpretentious, totally DIY before that term became cliché. I thought, “Hey, I could do that,” and to me that’s what punk rock is. It’s attainable. Available. It’s right there in reach. If I closed my eyes, I could just about see the rooms they recorded those songs in. The house at the address in the album. The 4-track set up in the kitchen. Microphones in the living room.
This is the spirit of Brace The Wave, a return to a simpler approach, both in the song writing and the recording. Engineer Justin Pizzaferato took Barlow’s sound and pronounced it just enough and the results are exciting. Pizzaferato understood what the cassette compositions called for and both long time listeners and new fans alike will dig. Lo-fi. Hi-fi. Mid-fi. Whatever. It works. The warm tape hiss at the beginning of “Moving” is like a lost bandmate coming back into the fold, and he’s been missed. One of the strongest songs on the album, “Moving” is Barlow at his best. There’s plenty of that trademark down-stroked, tape saturated acoustic guitar and Barlow drawl but with it comes a new mesh of sounds and approaches. Maybe it has something to do with the different mediums used to record it but when it all comes together it’s like a convergence of every “solo” release Lou has ever laid on the public. The thing that strikes me the most about the acoustics is that you can hear the room on a lot of these songs and it’s not a plug-in or an added effect. Listen to “Wave” for the perfect example. It’s refreshing.
Lyrically, there’s a lot to sing about on this record. Having recently moved back to western MA after 15 years in Los Angeles, getting divorced, then re-married, all these endings and new beginnings have obviously opened up a wealth of inspiration for Barlow and those themes are heavy throughout (“Crack & Emerge,” “Nerve”). There’s a confidence in these songs that I didn’t really hear in his last album, Goodnight Unknown, which featured more Pro Tools cut-and-paste. Barlow’s brand of music doesn’t benefit from much polishing and Brace The Wave balances that well. Plain and simple, it’s a classic Barlow album. A perfect example of a songwriter trusting their instincts and making the record they have to make. Just listen to “Boundaries.” This is a return to form. There’s a certain feeling a Lou Barlow fan will get when they hear him mutter the words “Seven twenty,” at the beginning of “Wave” that will strike a chord. These songs will take you back. It only took one listen for me to realize the beauty in these 9 songs. “Repeat” being the best example. Without trying to explain with too many words, it’s one of the best songs Lou’s written. Nice to know he’s still got it in him and that the best may still be to come.
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