Okay, sure, Guided By Voices is the lo-fi ’90s band. You’ll get no argument from me there. But can we set Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes aside for a second? Because they are not the definitive tape-hiss statements of their time. Instead, Lou Barlow’s Weed Forestin‘ — released originally under the moniker Sentridoh — represents a strange and beautiful example of exactly what an artist can do with the few resources they can patch together in their basement.
This record was actually re-released in 1990 on the Sebadoh collection The Freed Weed, but these recordings actually orginated in 1987. Barlow’s set predates GBV’s classic records, along with works by other lo-fi giants, but Barlow actually pushed the patchwork tangents of this sort of loner power-pop further than any of his contemporaries or followers.
Contextually, Weed Forestin’ is interesting in two ways. We see it both as a departure from playing second fiddle to J Mascis in Dinosaur Jr. and as a first example of his budding collaboration with future Sebadoh drummer Eric Gaffney, who plays percussion on a few tracks here. These songs are more tuneful than his few contributions to the Dinosaur Jr. catalog (see “Poledo”) but somehow much stranger. They are, as we’ve come to expect from Barlow, often lonesome and downtrodden. “More Simple” focuses on a dreamy protagonist set off from the people around them. The muffled heartache of “Subtle Holy Gift” also pits one man against a “hateful world.” There’s titles like “Ride the Darker Wave,” “Feeding Evil,” and “New Worship” that are as isolated as they sound.
But despite their darkness, the songs are quite tuneful in their brittle way. An early version of “Brand New Love” is nearly shimmering under the hiss, and offers something nearly hopeful at the end of the shadowy paths of the record. “I Believe In Fate” remains one of Barlow’s finest songs, rattling with punk fury but full of Barlow’s tight melodies and dark take on love (“soon we’ll be together and maybe even touch each other / pretend that it’s forever and then proceed to crush each other”). If these are the most fully realized tracks on the fragmented Weed Forestin’, they are not alone in their greatness. While the recordings themselves are messy and frayed, the songs underneath rarely disappoint, making the most of their brief runtimes to hit us with familiar hooks and surprising twists in tone and tempo.
The real knock on Weed Forestin’ has always been the tinkering with sound that happens around — or sometimes in the middle — of these songs. Some have claimed pretension on Barlow’s part, that the goofy snippets are put there defensively to make the record seem like a lark. I’d argue the opposite, though, that the tinkering and patching of sound makes these songs. This was in a better time, when lo-fi was born out of necessity and not an aesthetic, flimsy choice — who will write the lo-fi-musician version of The Artist? — so Barlow makes the most of limited means and actually does some pretty innovative cutting up and pasting here. The effect of these additions, from the odd repetition of “I’m a genius” spoken at the end of “Mr. Genius Eyes” to the turning radio dial at the end of “Broken,” actually brings up interesting questions of how form can create meaning. Since Barlow is operating outside of the usual recording structure, the studio, his songs can operate outside of normal song structure. Weed Forestin’ is the rare record that scratches our pop itch through solid choruses and earworm hooks while also questioning our expectations of what a song should sound like, what shapes it can take and still be considered pop.
Sure, GBV and others would do this — and perhaps Sebadoh’s later records do this better — but none have the unabashed and charming eccentricity of Weed Forestin’. Gaffney would become known as the more experimental player once Sebadoh unleashed albums like III, but here Barlow proves every bit the fiery tape-hiss oddball. This is an album unafraid to experiment and unafraid to lay its emotions bare (there are plenty of uncomfortable, depraved odes to chronic masturbation here) and it works because it takes those risks. It’s bittersweet and funny, sometimes self-conscious and goofy, sometimes honest and revealing. It’s an album that came from a particular context but has resonated long beyond that.
Barlow himself perhaps recognizes this, since he has re-released Weed Forestin’ with a fascinating collection of outtakes and other cassette recordings titled Child of the Apocalypse. Do yourself a favor and go pick ’em up and remember what it was like when lo-fi was necessary. And excellent.