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Lou Barlow: Goodnight Unknown (Merge) 

It sucked that Lou Barlow's incredible band Sebadoh petered out with two tepid final records, and I never had much use for the Folk Implosion, the band that briefly broke Barlow into the mainstream with their yawn of a hit, "Natural One."

Before all that, Barlow—in Sebadoh and during his three-album stint in Dinosaur Jr.—had a hand in creating some of the best music of the alternative-rock era. With his syrupy-sweet voice confessing to everything from incestuous desire to homicidal rage, he was lo-fi's Sylvia Plath, helping to pioneer the bleak confessional style that later blew up into that whole "emo" thing.

Now he's releasing his second solo album, and it's nice to have him back. Barlow's work has always fallen into two camps: the stripped-down, heart-on-his-sleeve ballads of his Sentridoh persona, and big-bottomed folk-rock numbers like "License to Confuse," off 1994's Bakesale. Goodnight Unknown has plenty of both: "man-and-his-guitar" neo-folk like "Faith in Your Heartbeat" and "The One I Call" (which swoons with unadorned prettiness), as well as louder offerings like the excellent "Gravitate," with its creepy organ-grinder crescendos, and the relatively flat "Sharing," which sounds phoned-in.

"I'm thinking on the things that I avoid / Asking questions of tomorrow / Betting on the tears that almost fall" Barlow sings on "I'm Thinking ... ," proving that he hasn't reinvented himself by any means ... but so what? There's no other hyperbolic self-obsessed songsmith of the '90s that I'd rather listen to as the aughts come to an end.

More by Sean Bottai

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