Entering the fourth decade of his career, Lou Barlow is an indie rock innovator and survivor. Back in the 1980’s, he was a founding member of both Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh. Later on in the 90’s, he compiled and performed on the Kids soundtrack, with his The Folk Implosion project scoring a massive crossover hit with with “Natural One.”
On Barlow’s newest record, Brace the Wave (his first going solely by his given name), each track exudes effortless artistry with minimal production polish. At times, the recordings feel incredibly raw, like they were captured in someone’s living room. In contrast, album opener “Redeemed”—with its ringing acoustic guitars and mandolins—sounds as though it could have been recorded at the Bron-Yr-Aur cottage under Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s watchful eye.
The hypnotic and meditative “Moving” begins with that same airy, informal session quality; but as it progresses, the ambiance and warm tape hiss is replaced by a cleaner sound. Even after the spacey gated synthesizer makes its entrance, the song’s organic earthiness is maintained. When the album moves on to “Pulse,” we find ourselves back in someones living room, tape hiss and all. “Boundaries” features Simon and Garfunkel harmonies fed partially through the dirty channel of a cheap practice amp. The combination of acoustic guitar, organic-sounding voices, phased keyboards and an almost sinister distorted drone is equal parts unsettling and beautiful.
There is a purity to Brace the Wave, the kind of focus that usually only comes to an artist later in his or her career. Lou Barlow makes no shameless attempts to bow to the fashionable sounds of the moment. There is no pandering to the lowest common denominator. This record demonstrates an artist who is confident in his sound and his craft, making precisely the kind of music he wants to make.