Sunday, March 5, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1624: Lou Barlow

Had a lovely lunch out at what used to be my favourite diner. Unfortunately, the diner moved out of downtown (crime, high rents, the usual story) so I don’t get out to their new location very often.

However, since this isn’t a “what I had for lunch blog” let’s get back to music, shall we?

Disc 1624 is…Reason to Live

Artist: Lou Barlow

Year of Release: 2021

What’s up with the Cover?  This cover won’t bring you to your hands and knees but it will bring you to someone’s hands and knees. I assume the isolation of the small window is designed to be artsy, but it just made me want to know what the picture was all about. And not in an evocative and artsy kind of way, but in an annoyed, “seriously, what is up with this picture?” kind of way. The graphic design is equally trying to evoke an artful quality without success.

How I Came To Know It: I have a few people I work with who trade “best of” lists with me each year. I believe this was one of my favourite album’s off of Darb’s “Best of 2021” list.

How It Stacks Up: This is my only Lou Barlow album, so can’t stack up against anything.

Rating: 3 stars

Most people know Lou Barlow from his other musical projects, namely Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. Given my reaction to those bands it is a minor miracle I’m going to be saying nice things about his solo work.

My recollections of Sebadoh are mostly from the early nineties when my roommate Greg used to play them. I recall each Sebadoh album having a lot of songs, most of which seemed like a collection of pointless noise, with one or two tracks I liked; usually the ones that didn’t sound like the others. As for Dinosaur Jr., they get brought out by friends at music listening nights from time to time. My reaction usually lands somewhere between “meh” and “um…no.”

Enter Lou Barlow’s solo effort, the pandemic album “Reason to Live”. My overall reaction to this record was it surprised me, and the songs land somewhere between the aforementioned “meh” and “um…yeah, I like it.” Given my prior relationship with Mr. Barlow’s music, this is significant progress.

This record is stripped down, which is how I like my arrangements. Most tracks are fueled by simple guitar strumming and Barlow’s vocals and little else. This is very much in my wheelhouse. Less so the production, which is a bit lo fi for my tastes. Just because you’re not employing a lot of instruments doesn’t mean you should skip proper care and attention at the mixing board. These tunes feel very “one take” and the production is tinny, like it was recorded at a single mic around a coffee table.

The one exception is the tone of the guitar work on “Privatize,” which is quite lovely. It has lots of layers and places for the ear to travel up and down in the mix without feeling busy. The record would benefit from this level of care and attention across the rest of the selections.

Barlow’s lyrics are a sort of conversational poetry, and he has a natural talent for phrasing that lets it feel like you’re overhearing some hipster at a coffee shop, telling an interesting story to his tablemate. Often this person is having an anxious moment and would benefit from making the next round a decaf.

The record is only 43 minutes long but it has 17 tracks, which is three over my maximum. I felt there were plenty of gems, but also a fair bit of filler. Getting this thing down to 14 or fewer tunes wouldn’t have been an impossible task, and should’ve been undertaken.

This problem is exacerbated by the front-end loading of the “good stuff”. It makes the record’s second half really drag. The one exception is the record’s penultimate track, “All You People Suck”. This song’s title might leave you the impression it is going to be a negative reflection on the human race, but the reverse is true. Barlow is only saying the people who deny human connectivity suck. The majority of us, working together, leaning on each other, and generally doing what we can to help out are OK. It’s that other group of people that suck.

This record has a lot of darkness and doubt in it, and a quaver to Barlow’s delivery that fits well in the year it was released (2021). Back then we were all locked in our houses, hoping the pandemic would one day end and life could resume. This “what comes next” vibe comes across in spades on “Reason to Live” but there is a also a thread of optimism that is pervasive and lurking behind all the trouble. Better times are coming, and in the meantime, it is OK to keep it real and express a few doubts.

Best tracks: Reason to Live, Why Can’t It Wait, Love Intervene, Privatize, All You People Suck

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