Lou Barlow is a terrific singer-songwriter who has been crafting innovative tunes under various guises since the mid-1980s. He has released music with Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion as well as under his own name. He is in many ways the poster child for all things “Indie Rock,” even before Guided By Voices became a thing.
Before I discuss the first time domestic vinyl reissue of Lou’s 2005 album called EMOH, lets talk about the notion of the independently made record and whether it could possibly sound genuinely really good, possibly even “demo-worthy.”
One of the hallmarks of modern home digital recording is that it breaks down the economic barriers of the recording studio so most anyone can make music on the go where they live and play. Before the digital revolution, the Tascam Portastudio cassette multi-track recorders in particular opened the flood gates in the early 1980s for affordable independent music making.
Remember, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was recorded on one of those things! But that was something of an anomaly. Fast forward, last year newcomer Billie Eilish swept the Grammy Awards with her debut album that was essentially recorded in her bedroom! Home recording has clearly come a long way…
For many years, however, there were loads of great but pretty rough sounding “indie” and “LoFi” (aka intentionally low fidelity) albums being released, as young artists learned how to become recording engineers as well as performers. Much good came of this period as artists made albums in unusual environments where natural acoustic reverb laden environments might exists such as kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms. Heck, one of my favorite Guided By Voices tracks (“I’ll Replace You With Machines“) sounds like it was recorded to match the rhythms of a washing machine.
In a way, this is getting back to the roots of studio recording as pioneered by no less than a Les Paul who made his own home studios in the 1940s and ’50s. Having a studio at home allowed him to innovate new sounds simply by running microphone cables around the house where he needed them. For example on the 1953 song “Walking and Whistling Blues” you can hear the sound of someone walking around the kitchen in rhythm in time for the music (I think it was his wife and performing partner Mary Ford).
So, back to EMOH, this album is technically Lou Barlow’s first full solo album, released under his own name just before he rejoined Dinosaur Jr. (so he never really got to promote this album properly). It was recorded across a bunch of different scenarios, from a 16-track recording studio in Nashville to four-track Mini-Disc (!) and elements recorded in his home. In some instances the recordings were started in one location and added to in another so all that contributes to the distinct sound on this record.
When EMOH was released in 2005 it was a CD-only release here in the United States. There was a small run of vinyl in the European market but those were next to impossible to find here.
In celebration of the 15th anniversary of EMOH — which coincided with the birth of his first child — Merge Records has put out a lovely two LP gatefold version of the album for the first time here in the US. It spreads the full album across four sides so there’s plenty of room for the tracks to breathe and it sounds quite wonderful on thick, well pressed, quiet vinyl.
Largely revolving around Lou’s acoustic guitar — sometimes it sounds like a nylon string guitar or even a Ukulele at times — this record has a hushed beauty to it even when it has moments of rocking out. Some of the guitars sound like they are recorded very closely so there is at times a wonderful sense and feel of the wood of the instrument and the strings coming through the speakers.
One of the first things you’ll hear on EMOH‘s opening track, “Hold Back The Years” is the sound of the room in which Lou is recording. As you can see from pictures included in the album I suspect that we are hearing the natural sound of the room he was in – a bathroom — a great place for natural reverb which makes for a very interesting production texture.
Lou Barlow’s voice and songwriting grabbed me from the get-go when I first saw him on a late night program on MTV — an acoustic set with Husker Du’s Bob Mould. His music won me over that night. I soon thereafter picked up an early album by his group Sebadoh and was absolutely blown away by the song “Soul and Fire” a production which in some ways is a loose template for this album – a raw, emotional tale of a failing love.
Lou has explained in materials promoting EMOH that it is basically documenting the break up of his first marriage. Accordingly, there is a lot of baring of the soul going on — love and heartbreak, soul and fire.
Some of my favorite songs here include the stunning “Mary” which tells the story of Jesus from the perspective of an imagined secret lover. “Confused” is another great tune which (to my ear) channels at points no less than classic 1972-73 Grateful Dead sounds, mining similar spaces to their classics “Wharf Rat” and “Dark Star”
“Round & Round” has such a strong chorus hook, in a different production it might have been a pop hit but here its a sparse, airy acoustic guitar and piano arrangement that is powerful.
EMOH is a wonderful record and you should check it out. It is streaming in CD-quality at Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here). They both sound pretty good, similar to the CD, but not as rich, round and rewarding as the new vinyl edition.
Now I hope that Lou can get his fantastic Folk Implosion album One Part Lullaby issued on vinyl, another great recording that deserves better treatment than the compact disc can offer.