Overpowered by folk

Lou Barlow slices through expectations

Nathan Hall

Few things are more maddening than a pretentious artiste who is nearly as talented as he thinks he is. Firing band mates on the slightest of whims, showing up stumble-down-the-stairs drunk at cocktail meet-and-greets and snickering over obtuse inside jokes at in-store appearances must be forgiven because the songwriting is just so catchy. Perhaps no one fits this stereotype more convincingly than Lou Barlow of The New Folk Implosion.

For starters, the title of his new album is more than a tad ballsy, implying that his split with longtime partner-in-crime John Davis was less than amicable. The latest Barlow incarnation features Russell Pollard on drums and Imaad Wasif on guitars, both hired guns from indie pop duo Alaska, with Barlow handling bass and vocal duties as usual. The monstrous difficulty of working with Barlow has become legendary in the college rock circuit, yet by all accounts, a veritable army of dewy-eyed, greasy-haired hipsters still lines up around the block for the chance to rub corduroys with this much-heralded lo-fi trailblazer.

Barlow got his start plunking bass strings for spirited noodlers Dinosaur Jr., but he was summarily given the boot after two albums due to personal differences with equally opinionated front man J. Mascis. He bitterly parted company with lawsuits hanging over his head, then plunged headfirst into the monstrously successful and highly prolific Sebadoh, a post-post-punk outfit that struck the mohawk set as too wimpy, college rock radio gatekeepers as too calculated, and James Taylor fans as too weird. His purposely unpolished home-taping project got a shot in the arm when controversial art-house auteur Larry Clark handpicked Folk Implosion to coordinate the soundtrack for the 1995 film “Kids.” The funky fluke hit single “Natural One” cracked the Top 40 charts, garnered mainstream accolades, and even allowed the band members to quit their day jobs.

Rather than bask in the glow of brisk sales, however, the perpetually unsatisfied iconoclast rebuffed fame and launched Sentridoh, a much-lauded batch of gloriously poorly recorded bedroom demos that only further cemented adoration from a borderline fawning public. Deluxx Folk Implosion, another Sebadoh imprint, surfaced, with the artists banging on various toy instruments to keep things interesting. It seemed no matter how lucrative the record deal or how friendly the label, the socially awkward rebel never seemed properly convinced the crowd was hip enough for his art.

The New Folk Implosion’s quirky and off-kilter, yet melancholic sound is still hypnotically pleasant, but its latest foray into major-label territory has produced an undeniably slick recording utterly devoid of the band’s earlier trademark tape hiss. The songs still center almost exclusively on dysfunctional love lost, but manage never to mention the word itself. Barlow’s mournful bleating is simultaneously wistful, bittersweet and uncomfortably intimate.

If Barlow is intentionally side-stepping success and undermining his career with petty squabbles, his undeniable pop hooks will forever remain his salvation; his sensitive and intelligent introspection never resort to basement navel-gazing. Folk Implosion’s musical explorations were always purported to be the exact opposite of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s noisy swagger. By reveling in the pure joy of cheesy drum machines, the band consistently delivers a small-scale, stripped-down electronica folk-hop hybrid that happily defies expectations.

In the end, the joke might be on us. Poking fun at his never-ending back catalog of aliases, the band appeared briefly as stoner group Foke Implojun in last year’s forgettable Christian Bale vehicle “Laurel Canyon.” For all of Barlow’s pissing and moaning about keeping his integrity pure, there is ample evidence to suggest we take him a bit more seriously than we ought to. At a Sebadoh concert at First Avenue a few years back, Lou and Co. happily agreed to provide an improvised opener when the supporting act had to cancel at the last minute. The group quickly commandeered some hair metal costumes, replete with spectacularly unmanageable wigs, and christened themselves Guitar Mountain. The curtain rose and Barlow treated the bewildered audience to an extended drum solo while the guitarists chanted, “We are Guitar Mountain!” ad nauseam. Eventually, the crowd caught on to the gag and began to chuckle as a rare grin crossed Barlow’s pouty lips. Perhaps The New Folk Implosion will have the last laugh after all.

The New Folk Implosion will

perform at 8 p.m., Wednesday at the 400 Bar, (612) 332-2903, 21+.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]