Album: Lou Barlow

Emoh, DOMINO
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The Independent Culture

The deliberately primitive and atavistic urge underpinning the current wave of American lo-fi alt.country acts is indicative of a desire to get back to basic principles, an attempt to scour away the accumulated deposits of "commercial" processing to let the raw truth shine through. At its most effective, there's something about the work of, say, Bonnie "Prince" Billy that's closer to whittling a stick than anything to do with the mainstream pop business.

That's pretty much the point Lou Barlow is at in this second solo album, despite its being by some distance the most sleekly recorded offering of his career. There's an honesty and directness about these reflections that suggest an artist striving to reveal his soul uncluttered by the distractions of rock mythologising. It's as if the grainy, cassette-recorded texture of his earlier work with Sebadoh, rather than a hallmark of indie authenticity, were covering up for something missing. As he observes in "Monkey Begun": "Confusion was alright/ Till it kept me up at night/Heavy breathing was okay/ Till it took my breath away."

This becomes apparent by contrast when one hears "Home", whose sluggish chugging, swamped in a patina of muffled background noise, is not so much lo-fi as fog-fi. It's like the quicksand from which Barlow is struggling to free himself on the rest of the album, whose themes concern things such as healing, honesty and the possibility of transformation. "Could you be original caterpillar girl?/ Crawling up the vine, splitting your spine/ Flowing through the motion/ Leave shell behind," he wonders. Another song adopts a flinty tone for its analysis of a failing relationship: "We were simply buried alive/ Trapped in a rapture, trying to disguise/ Cuddle on the couch, tranquillised".

The desire to present the truth in as unalloyed a form as possible at times leads Barlow into unavoidable cruelty, as in the bitter, implacable "Legendary", where pity is eschewed as part of the healing process: "Re-enact your legendary tragedy/ Do to me what has been done to you/ Is that the only point to all this misery?/ Is there any reason I should cry?" There's even a cold-eyed appraisal of the Virgin Birth in "Mary", with Jesus viewed as the result of an adulterous affair, Mary "breaking the law with the man next door". It's set to a melancholy mix of mandolin and cello, with a touch of wan whistling adding to the ancient, careworn tone.

The arrangements are kept simple and basic - "If I Could" sounds like a glum hootenanny - with just the restrained puttering of percussion and the occasional caress of keyboards or lead guitar adding spice to Barlow's strumming. But, for all its understated approach, there's a beguiling charm about Emoh that resonates far longer than more attention-seeking albums.

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