Lou Barlow Goodnight Unknown

[Merge; 2009]

Styles: indie-pop, power pop
Others: Sebadoh, Folk Implosion

Lou Barlow always seems to be at the crux of something intriguing. As the bassist for Dinosaur Jr., he dismantled the three-chord trappings of punk rock while at the same time out-amplifing metal. In Sebadoh, he and Eric Gaffney used bedroom effects like field recordings and poorly tuned guitars to rewrite (or incinerate) the rulebook on DIY recording. With his friend John Davis, he formed The Folk Implosion whose soundtrack for the 1995 film Kids garnered the surprise indie-dream-shattering hit, “Natural One.” It’s strange therefore to encounter albums like Emoh (Barlow’s 2005 Merge Records debut) and now Goodnight Unknown, Barlow solo albums composed squarely within the boundaries of professional production and standard pop aesthetics.

This isn’t to say that Goodnight Unknown is ordinary. In fact, it’s one of the more pleasing and contemplative pop/rock albums released this year. Barlow has long demonstrated a knack for crafting subtle melodies into slow-burning anthems of the underdog. Like its predecessor, Emoh, Goodnight is full of understated, melodic, tightly-strummed confessionals as well as rhythmically-charged rockers (that include canonized Melvins drummer, Dale Crover). The fuzzy march of album opener “Sharing” finds kinship to Bug-era Dinosaur Jr. tracks before shifting into a melodic coda (where Barlow’s vocals strain, shifting upward an impassioned octave). That Barlow accomplishes the same approximate sentiment on “Too Much Freedom” -- this time using only acoustic guitars -- reveals a defining characteristic of his solo work: the dense weave of his own heartbreak, reconciliation, and catharsis with the ebbs and flows of his music.

While over the years many legacy musicians (yes, Lou is getting there) have allowed listeners to glimpse their internal evolution, not many have taken the sheer number of distinct steps that Barlow has. From the suburban hardcore of Deep Wound to Dinosaur Jr. to Sebadoh and to The Folk Implosion, the decades have seen him through periods of angst, comedy, rage, uninhibited creativity, and structure. While Goodnight clearly falls into this last notion, strains from even his earliest recordings still surface. For example his penchant for lyrical self-deprecation and doubt (see Sebadoh, “I’m looking for a punch in the nose”) trickle to the fore with lines like “I’m way more trouble than I’m worth/ And don’t you go sinking in my quicksand.”

Ultimately though, just as he does on Emoh, Lou Barlow reveals that such thinking is merely a step in the human process rather than a permanent state of being, as his earlier recordings suggest. Here, most often in single songs, he reconsiders his angst of yore as a journey toward reconciliation. “Take advantage of my love,” he sings near the end of the album. Longtime fans will be enchanted by such quips and the naked introspection offered by Goodnight Unknown, and while not at all challenging, casual listeners will enjoy it simply for its strong collection of pop songs.

1. Sharing
2. Goodnight Unknown
3. Too Much Freedom
4. Faith In Your Heartbeat
5. The One I Call
6. The Right
7. Gravitate
8. I'm Thinking ...
9. One Machine, One Long Fight
10. Praise
11. Take Advantage
12. Modesty
13. Don't Apologize
14. One Note Tone

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