Album Review: Lou Barlow, ‘Brace the Wave’
As a founding member of Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion, bassist-singer-songwriter Lou Barlow has played a pivotal role in the formative development of indie rock. With Sebadoh in particular, Barlow's use of lo-fi recording techniques was instrumental, along with Pavement and Guided By Voices, in paving the way for countless artists to embrace raw, even non-existent production values by using cheap recording gear like 4-tracks. That said, it's refreshing to see Barlow continue to search for new modes of expression now that he's decades removed from ushering-in not one but two paradigms.
On Brace the Wave, his second album released under his own name, Barlow still opts for a mostly unvarnished approach that verges on rustic. The album consists primarily of his voice and acoustic guitar accompanied by an unobtrusive layer of instrumental trimmings like baritone ukelele, keyboard, doubled vocals and moderate effects. Still, this new material falls far from the trebly sonics of classic Sebadoh. As skeletal as Brace the Wave gets at times, the album benefits from actual production, even if said production takes discreet form like, say, room ambience on his voice, an extra-heavy reverb here, a minimal coating of gloss on an acoustic guitar there, etc. (courtesy of Justin Pizzoferrato, who also helmed all three of Dinosaur Jr.'s post-reunion albums). Barlow has come to personify the definition of un-fussy. But, given this album's spare components, the fact that it was recorded in six days actually suggests more attention to detail than he's generally given credit for.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Brace the Wave showcases how seasoned Barlow has become as a songwriter. On song after song, his unassuming delivery belies the skill and passion it takes to come up with tunes that engage the listener with such inviting ease. Brace the Wave proves that he's achieved that master-level status where songwriters make their job look easy when in fact it takes extraordinary ability to make it sound so effortless. Barlow's musical aesthetic has always centered around staying out of inspiration's way and letting the honesty of the moment shine through. These days, though, it's impossible to deny the craftsmanship he applies to that inspiration, even if making tasty musical decisions now appears to come like second-nature to him.