Lo-fi fuzz-pop – think The Cure coalescing around the guitars of Les Thugs – is the name of the game on In A Stranger’s Car, the 2017 outing from Pittsburgh’s Barlow that gets the re-release treatment on cassette and streaming formats from Crafted Sounds Monday, 1/22. The new edition features outtakes and promises of things to come.
But what can we say of the original recording, which was quietly released last summer? Barlow has never been keen on fidelity in most senses of the word – sometimes, in fact, they seem diametrically opposed to it, stopping and starting sections of their songs at will, or blending them together in a haze of takes and retakes. But the songs here have a surprising amount of depth and dimension to them, even in the most cut-and-pasted of moments. In A Stranger’s Car, recorded mostly to four-track from 2011 to 2017, sounds, indeed, like a labor of dictating tender affectations – there’s clearly care to how the crunch of a chorus is taped, how a sound or sentiment loops (evidence: the hypnotic “Throwing Star”), or how frontman Ethan Olivia’s plaintive wails occasionally cut through the murkiness of it all.
There’s lot of fuzz, to be sure, both of the distorted and recorded varieties, but there’s also a lot of color. The drums point and plod in various directions, and guitars — sometimes underwater-reverby, sometimes ’92-grunge-enraged – swirl and then wrap notes around you like a warm blanket. The incredible “False Eye” where pseudo-perked verses lead into a rousing chorus, is a classic example of how the band writes songs that don’t stop and start so much as fall into your arms and then vanish into hushed breaths. The act of listening, therefore, is rather immediate and blood-pumping vital. When you let down your guard and search for a formula, they throw a post-punk closer like “Time Man” – epic stuff! – at you, just to make sure you’re paying attention. This stuff keeps you on your goddamned toes!
Barlow isn’t just a garagy Pittsburgh monster, though; the group also knows its hooks. To that end, I suggest you look no further than the beautiful, too-short “Highway” or the 80s-shimmer of “c.o.l.” which is period-perfect and captures the glowing naivete of some of the era’s best guitar pop, as well as the underground strutting of purveyors like Beat Happening. Or, as if to one-up themselves, Barlow posits “Go For It” as the next track on the release, complete with jangly acoustic guitars and a buzz-worthy drive into the horizon-line.
This is beautiful music, recorded in an ugly fashion. Barlow’s lo-fi sensibilities place it at stern odds with much of the overproduced cotton-candy that’s considered pop these days; but the group’s heart is a pop diamond. On the newly new In A Stranger’s Car, they let that diamond shine.