Label: Merge Records
As a young man in the late ’80s, Lou Barlow made his mark playing bass in the pioneering post-punk band Dinosaur Jr. Later, he would refine his pop sensibilities in Sebadoh, one of the darlings of ’90s indie rock. He even scored a hit single with his more experimental side project Folk Implosion in 1995 . After a brief hiatus at the turn of the century, Barlow returned with reformed versions of both Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr., spending the last few years touring with each. Goodnight Unknown is built around songs he wrote in hotel rooms while on various reunion tours. Listeners hoping for this album to offer a window onto those hectic years will have to look elsewhere, for there’s very little to connect these songs to anything outside of Barlow’s personal notebook.
Individually, each of these songs has some degree of appeal, whether it’s the folksome bass-plucking and rustic drumming of “The One I Call,” or the rapid fuzzed out power pop of “Sharing,” the album’s opener. As a whole, though, Goodnight Unknown fails to build into anything significant; the energy of “Sharing” quickly runs aground on the plodding rhythm of the dissonant, low-fidelity title track. Barlow re-emerges riding a fairly traditional train track snare drum and the crisply recorded “I Have Too Much Freedom,” creating a stop-go effect as he leads us into the soft-spoken and meandering “Have Faith In Your Heartbeat.”
Over the course of his career Lou Barlow has demonstrated that his musical talents are multi-faceted, whether as a writer or a musician, and initially he attempted to record many of the instruments himself before enlisting the aid of Godsmack producer Andrew Murdock. Thus, the album tilts between the rough and rambling approach of Barlow’s recording style and Murdoch’s own carefully arranged, clearly-produced pieces. Unfortunately, this clarity is not always used to best effect as we do not necessarily gain in our appreciation by hearing Barlow recite such maudlin lines from “Take Advantage” as “Take apart a rainbow/ Feed it to the sunrise/ Wake me with your elbow/ And I’ll know/ That you love me like a pancake.” Similarly, Lisa Germano’s guest vocals are pretty much lost as background whisper on “Too Much Freedom.” However, Germano’s collaboration also brought along her colleague Sebastian Steinburg, whose bass playing on “Gravitate,” along with Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover, is one of the album’s finer moments. Crover also helps to propel Barlow on songs like the rambunctious “One Machine, One Long Fight.”
Despite all the changes he’s been through over the last few years- marriage, fatherhood, reconnecting with estranged bandmates- the only time that Goodnight Unknown breaks out of familiar, well-trod Lou Barlow territory is on the album closer, “One Note Tone.” In fact it’s this last song that really draws the listener in, with its quiet opening lines, “It gets older everyday/ And what you did won’t be what you’re remembered for.” As the song moves into a more strident tone, and Barlow speaks of “breaking away,” he’s clearly trying to lay some ghosts to rest. It’s a shame this wasn’t evident on more of the album.