Barlow is a Pittsburgh-based noise-pop band comprised of three people in their early twenties. Over the past five years, the band has released three full-length albums, a B-sides compilation, three EPs, two splits and two singles in addition to frontman Ethan Oliva releasing a 35-track solo album and 52-track Guided By Voices tribute album – both in 2015. Perhaps most impressive about this observation isn’t the amount of music they’ve released, but the consistency that can be traced all the way back to the band’s beginning. Oliva’s commitment to producing quality music is the stuff of legends and reflects the prolific tendencies of his most obvious influences. With this in mind, the band’s third LP, In a Stranger’s Car, is another success rooted in growth, confidence to explore the darker side of pop songwriting and pedalboards that would make Kevin Shields blush.
Those new to the band may instantly recognize the four-track production that marked much of college and indie-rock in the 90s, and there’s a skillful use of dissonance between the crackling of cassette tape and the band’s bubblegum melodies that’s always played to their advantage. That is no less evident here as opener “Tirebiter” lets its squealing, distorted guitars take hold of the track and never let go. These same guitars are evident during the album’s most eclectic standout, “You Have to See It,” which splits its time equally between an aggressive, blown out chorus and delicate, eerie verses that reflect the album’s artwork. Also highlighted are the album’s longest tracks, single “False Eye” and closer “Time Man.” The former, Oliva’s self-professed favorite Barlow track, plays like a greatest hits experience in four minutes, explosive in the way it changes directions and executes several of the band’s trademark sounds.
What truly sets In a Stranger’s Car apart from its predecessors is the way it feels like Barlow’s most fully-realized vision to date. The album is connected by a number of snippets and interludes rooted in field recordings and experimentation, such as the tape cutting out at the beginning of “Accosted,” the percussive banging of piano-driven “Arms of Waiting” or the gorgeous, down-to-Earth “Throwing Star.” It’s moments like these that tend to add another dimension to the deep-seated (and thoroughly explored) signature sound. At 32 minutes, the album is Barlow’s longest LP, an achievement for a band with a tendency to write songs that rarely surpass the two minute mark. But at an almost unheard of five,“Time Man” closes the album on perhaps its loudest note, driven by Andrew Yadeski’s speed behind the kit and Jake Nowoczynski’s dark and inspired bass-playing.
In a Stranger’s Car is not as immediate as past Barlow releases, and detractors of lo-fi music need not apply as you’ll have no luck deciphering the lyrics on your own. But when the hooks are so well-written that you find yourself singing along regardless, who can complain? Barlow remains an important asset to the DIY scene not because of the quality of their music, but because of their dedication to pushing themselves, and In a Stranger’s Car is ultimately a testament to that.