If you’re an avid reader of this site, I don’t think that much background information on Lou Barlow is necessary. Both he and Eric Gaffney are cofounders of Sebadoh, arguably one of independent rock’s most influential bands. Sebadoh began as a series of collaborations recorded on a cheap four-track, but it slowly congealed into a three-piece “professional band.” (Anyone who’s familiar with the band’s scattershot nature knows why I put those words in quotes.) As the band made its way into proper studios, Barlow kept releasing collections of solo four-track doodles on various labels. Through his prolific recordings, Barlow did just as much as Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard to give birth to at least two generations’ worth of DIY musicians. On one hand, the “low-fi” movement gave many broke and talented people a reason to express themselves through whatever means they had available, instead of waiting around for a label or patron to fund their studio time. On the other hand, it also gave many broke and untalented people an excuse to concoct intentionally sketchy and poor sounding music. After a while, there were so many bedroom musicians around that it got tough to separate the wheat from the chaff, the “reasons” versus the “excuses.” It didn’t help that even the best of these musicians (Barlow and Pollard included) were poor self-editors.
Nowadays, your average critic flinches at the prospect of reviewing yet another interminable album of home recordings. It’s safe to say that Lou Barlow’s popularity is declining, as everything he’s released since 1999, from Sebadoh’s final album onward to his Loobiecore and Folk Implosion side projects, has been met by the public with general indifference. This CD, an expanded version of a cassette that Barlow released nearly a decade ago on the Shrimper label, might not even be of interest to anyone who doesn’t already own the original cassette. However, there is enough great material on Wasted Pieces to suggest that this would be a fine starting point for people to reevaluate Barlow’s past work, as well as for neophytes to see what they missed the first time around. Wasted Pieces is perfectly emblematic of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the music that came out of the “lo-fi” movement of the mid-1990s. Running through thirty-one tracks in almost fifty minutes, it can be an exhausting listen, but judicious use of the “program” button on your CD player will yield a masterpiece.
I’d like to divide the tracks on this CD into four categories. First are the “proper songs,” which take up a bit more than half of the track listing. In these songs, Barlow accompanies himself primarily on acoustic guitar, strumming in his characteristic Sentridoh style. He strums on the downbeat instead of the upbeat, a beat displacement that takes a bit of getting used to until you realize that almost every Sentridoh song has that rhythm. I remember reading in an interview that Lou likes recording on four-track because it captures the overtones of his acoustic guitar nicely. Couple that with the frequent alternate tunings he uses, and what you get are a series of droning chords that sound totally beautiful. Barlow sings in a plaintive, sonorous tenor about matters of the heart. “Broken II” chastises an emotionally damaged slut, “Nitemare” describes the pain of going to sleep without his girlfriend by his side, “Albuquerque ‘89” grossly recounts a porn and masturbation session, and the brilliant “Suede” rebukes the live-in lover who moved out and left him. When Lou sings on the a capella track “I Can’t Wait,” “He can take you away because he needs you/His love is brand new, but I need you more,” I can visualize Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carabba taking notes while curled up next to the stereo.
The second category is the “sketches,” songs which start to go somewhere promising only to abruptly end in mid-thought (“Be Nice to Me,” “Rather Die,” et cetera). Surprisingly, there aren’t as many of these as one would expect. The third category is the “noise.” Every once in a while, Barlow drops furious onslaughts of tape manipulation, most of which are indexed as untitled tracks. Wasted Pieces’ opening track begins with a collage of distorted voices and bells, which gives way to a cacophony of rewinding tapes that sounds like something Pimmon would come up with if he didn’t have a computer handy to make noise with. The fourth track is a snippet of harsh Sonic Youth-style guitar drone. The twenty-fourth track is a warped keyboard solo that sounds like a beat-less Boards of Canada song run through a mountain of tape hiss. The fourth category, then, would be the songs that don’t fit into the other three. There are songs that start off normally and then venture into noise territory; “Conspiracy,” for instance, drowns Barlow’s voice completely in radio static. The harmonium-driven “It Might Be” sounds like a number from an old-style radio play. There are two or three spoken-word tracks, all of which are uniformly horrible; the man’s certainly no Mark E. Smith, that’s for sure. There’s also a funny recording from an early Sebadoh show in which Barlow chides the audience for talking too loudly while he’s playing.
The most obvious criticism that I can make about Wasted Pieces is that it could have easily been whittled down to a more digestible fifteen (or even twenty) tracks. I also wonder if Barlow’s future home recordings will incorporate elements of tape collage a bit more smoothly. He could make a name for himself as an experimental composer if he wanted to. I listen to the pure noise tracks almost as much as I do the proper songs, whereas the ones that hover uneasily between the two poles leave me cold. Overall, I recommend Wasted Pieces for purchase, if more as a historical document than as a cohesive listening experience. There are too many good bits on the CD for it to be ignored the second time around.