Today’s entry is fraught with all kinds of controversy. Of course, the “controversy” doesn’t actually exist except inside my own head, but I have felt conflicted about this album ever since I began this blog and was constantly rifling through albums trying to figure out what I could and couldn’t write about.
But now it’s nearly 6am, I am tired as all-get-out, and I wanted at least one more day between Johnny Cash albums, so here we are, the-final-and-I-mean-it-this-time entry about Poor Old Lu, with their album Straight Six:
The main conflict in my head about this particular collection of songs is that, as its name implies, it is a six-song EP. Now, no matter what can be said about the albums I have talked about thus far, it can be agreed beyond a shadow of a lightbulb that they are all full-length albums, and I told myself early on that it would be foolish to talk about something as small as an EP when there were giants out there to tackle.
Well, then I got to thinking about it. I’ve talked about full-length “albums” that have 6 tracks or less and are still considered albums, and I’ve talked about albums that, despite having many tracks, are actually shorter than this album in length, and yet those are considered full length. Add to that the fact that this is Poor Old Lu we’re talking about here, a band I could talk about for my quota’s worth on just a single song, and I think we’ve got a pretty solid argument for this release’s favor. That, and it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard, EP or LP.
So what’s so great about Straight Six? Well, if you want to be fair but a little bit biting, it’s the only Poor Old Lu album out there without visible “filler” material, which would explain the “Straight” part of the title. Indeed, all 6 tracks on this little album-like wonder are praise-worthy, or at least unique in their own right, if that uniqueness isn’t worthy of such praise.
In fact, the song least likely to wind up on anyone’s top 20 is the opening number, “Lie, Lie, Lie”. There’s nothing to complain about in the song’s message or lyrical content; it’s just a “prodigal son” story set in modern times with a youth who decides to drift away from home in order to find happiness, but figures out that happiness was at home all along and happy endings and all that. The tune itself is solid enough too, but I think there’s a certain flatness to the recording/mixing that causes this song to be kind of flat. The cleanness we would expect to hear from Poor Old Lu in later releases wasn’t quite there for this one, as the guitar is a little over-present in the mix, the vocals pushed to the back and lacking dynamic, a prominent track of hand-clapping not only off-sequence but kind of isolated in the mix, and hidden somewhere in there is some truly great drum work that’s a little too trash-can-esque to be distinct. Honestly, I love “Lie, Lie, Lie”, but it could have been recorded better, even if some of all that was actually intentional. According to their own testimony, they were going for a “70′s” sound with this one, I don’t know.
The second track more than makes up for it, in fact, “Bittersweet” should, by all rights, stand up there with the rest of Lu’s “hits” as a memorable classic. I mean, for one, it’s one of the very few Poor Old Lu songs to contain an instrument that I feel they should have exploited more often: the cello. Indeed, a fairly simple-yet-elegant cello line was performed by their friend, and as the song crescendos into this noisy array of minor chords and just alt-rock awesomeness, the cello throws out this solo that I always thought was really great, at least until I started working with a cellist who has a Master’s Degree in the instrument, and now other cello players sound dumb to me. Sorry, dude!
Seriously though, “Bittersweet” is a touching song that sort of tries to connect some disconnected themes of longing and spiritual relevance, and recalls some of the bleak moodiness of their later Picture Of The Eighth Wonder style. It’s almost a window into songs like “Rail” and “The Weeds That Grow Around My Feet”, only with a cello!
The next song makes a bit of sense, a fancy spanish-sounding melody featuring acoustic guitars playing a mock flamenco style as Scott sings some good ol’ “Good Vs. Evil” themed lyrics, as it’s highly reminiscent of an evolved form of their popular “Cannon Fire Orange” song. This particular song, according to Scott, scored quite a few illegal downloads on the ol’ Napster service (now a legit music service owned by Best Buy who bought it so they could bank on the name, if you can believe the irony), because the title of the song is “Slipknot”, and of course, there was a popular band around at that time that I think are still bummin’ around the country somewhere.
“Digging Deep” is a grand song, about the closest thing you’ll ever find to a praise & worship number by Lu, as it incorporates those legendary chords: G, D, and C. Those three chords make up just about all Christian music before the 70′s or so, and are still the most powerful set of chords this side of a Wednesday Night bible study. In this case, however, it’s Lu’s modest message about keeping humble and steadfast when outwardly appealing to people about the Christian message, and indeed the “Digging Deep” into the soul is what provides such strength. Further adding to the power of this song is a rare instance indeed: a guest vocalist! In this case, it’s the “recently resurged in popularity” Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate, who was a friend of the boys in the band long before any of them started with music (if you recall, there’s a hidden track on Sin composed of a voice-mail message from Jeremy to Lu bassist Nick Barber accusing him of stealing a necklace). His vocals with Scott’s are really excellent, actually, except that he sounds quite a lot like Aaron Sprinkle, so much so that I had no idea that there WAS a guest vocalist on this song, until I actually read through the liner notes. Still, great stuff.
More great stuff is in another Lu rarity: a political rocker called “For The Love Of My Country”. The song is driven by one of the hardest, fastest beats and guitar/bass lines in the band’s repetoire, until it slows down to a light guitar, still playing urgently, in the background as Scott sings the words, riddled with self-doubt over the limits of what one will do for one’s country. Far be it for me to denounce the Army or whatever the kids are doing these days, I just want to say that the bridge of this song, with a lead guitar solo and super-punchy bass part, is one of my favorite moments on the whole… erm… EP.
Finally, we get another rarity, in fact a downright unique event in the history of Poor Old Lu. For one, “Speak Soft” is a cover, which is something the band has not done before nor since, as far as albums go. The other is that it’s a 6-7 minute epic poem following allegorical examples of a deep emotional bond between mankind and what we want out of life. At least, that’s the way I see it. The song follows all kinds of struggles, beginning and ending with a character called Jerry getting drunk in a bar. In the time between, the song flows in a calm sea of finger-picking arpeggios (or double-tracked flat-picked arpeggios, if you’re going to argue the point) and haunting choruses, only to completely erupt in a rock-out portion that, in no way, seems gaudy or forced. Indeed, the song merely intensifies and goes through hundreds of chord changes before calming down again, only to build up one last time before the song’s peaceful end, with its heady warning:
Don’t trouble yourself with seeking peace… go cheap.
Before ending on a droning chord that swells into the peak of what the audio will allow before fading off into nothing.
The song itself is beautiful, and was apparently written by a band called Loom (err, make that The Swoon) in the 80′s. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find any physical version of their one and only album, upon which this song appears, but apparently the album was one of the main driving influences behind Poor Old Lu’s overall sound, and this song was their homage to those guys. Well-played, boys. I was so impressed by this song, in fact, that I took it upon myself to learn a one-man cover on acoustic guitar, and I like to show it off every now and then. I just really love the song, and it makes a fitting end to an impressive-yet-short album/EP/whatever.
So there we go, 1500 words (average “I love this album” length) on a 6-song EP that I had avoided because I didn’t think the writeup would be full enough. Goes to show what I know, eh? Well, until next time!