A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Poor Old Lu
WHO ARE THEY? Hailing from a youth group on one of the many islands off the coast of Seattle, Poor Old Lu was one of the most popular Christian alternative bands of the 1990s. Their sound was sunnier than most Seattle bands, even though you could certainly call some of their music grunge-adjacent—a big part of that sunniness, I think, is Nick Barber’s basswork, which frequently delves, effectively and unexpectedly, into funk rock. (That funkiness actually kept me away from them for awhile because I wasn’t sure what to do with them.)
Besides Barber, the band is anchored by guitarist Aaron Sprinkle and his brother Jesse on drums, two very underrated musicians. Aaron’s guitar work—mostly rhythm rather than lead—is versatile and always suits the needs of the song; Jesse’s drumming does what drums are supposed to do—provide a foundation for the rest of the instruments—but it features much more complicated fills than it would initially seem. Lead singer Scott Hunter’s vocals are original and unmistakable, a hoarse and raspy tenor that obscures his lyrics as often as it reveals them—which is fine, because this is a band that’s about vibe more than meaning.
Poor Old Lu put out four full-length records and an EP before breaking up in 1996; they reunited for a well-received comeback album, The Waiting Room, in 2002; since that time, they have released only a single song, “The Great Unwound,” in 2013.
GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Funk Rock, Grunge
RIYL Alice in Chains, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Sunny Day Real Estate
WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? Guitarist Aaron Sprinkle produced approximately 40,000 albums for Tooth & Nail Records in the first decade of this century. Also, emo superstar Jeremy Enigk was part of this band before they were called Poor Old Lu.
WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? “Where Were All of You,” from Sin (1994), the coolest song in the world when I was fifteen.
Sin (1994). Poor Old Lu’s first two albums were a very early ‘90s combination of grunge and funk-rock. Two years in, it must have been getting old, because Sin largely jettisoned the funk side of their sound. Instead, they stretched out ever so slightly—witness the almost alternative country riffs of “Hope for Always” and the noodly, atmospheric guitar-bass interplay at the beginning of “Bones Are Breaking.”
Their songwriting had improved, too. Hunter was becoming more confident as a lyricist and a vocalist by this time, and his melodies on Sin are much less likely to follow the root note of the music than on the previous two records. Even when the songs aren’t really there—like, for example, “I Am No Good”—the instrumental performances carry them through. Barber and the Sprinkle brothers turn in career-best performances here, and Aaron in particular demonstrates his remarkable talents as a guitarist, whether it’s the massive crunch of “My World Falls Down” (the heaviest song in Poor Old Lu’s catalogue), the stabbing, chorus-pedaled middle eight of “Ring True” (his first lead vocal), or the ouzo-soaked lead of “Cannon-Fire Orange.”
The best song on the record, though, is “Where Were All of You,” a masterpiece of alternative rock with a fantastic ascending guitar riff and some world-class yelps from Hunter (one of rock’s great yelpers). It belongs on any list of the great songs of the alternative era, Christian or otherwise, and if Poor Old Lu had never recorded another song, I’d still love them for this one.
A Picture of the Eighth Wonder (1996). Poor Old Lu’s final record before their breakup is also their moodiest, anchored by three atypically downcast songs: the seven-minute opener “Rail,” a mini-symphony that slides effortlessly from movement to movement; the watery “What If Uncle Ben Had Lived,” which floats on top of a Hammond organ; and “Hello Sunny Weather,” an anthemic ode to finally, at last, growing up.
“Hello Sunny Weather” demonstrates the degree to which Picture is about transitions; in retrospect, it is clearly the sound of a band whose members are evolving past one another. “A Better Me” and “The Weeds That Grow Around My Feet” both find Hunter smashing against spiritual boundaries, and the final track, “Closing Down”—well, that should have been a hint, shouldn’t it?—pushes him to the edge of a leap of faith. It seems important to me that most of the backing vocals on Picture are double-tracked Hunters, with Aaron Sprinkle singing only in the third verse of “Receive.”
Even so, as far as band-dissolution records go, there’s very little bitterness in A Picture of the Eighth Wonder. I won’t pretend that I know the reasons why Poor Old Lu broke up, but at least to the extent that breakup is recorded on Picture, feels amicable and organic: Having released five albums in five years, it was time for new things. On the way out, they left us this album, their last gift—at least until their reunion six years later.
WORTH A LISTEN
Straight Six (1995). This EP, released between Sin and A Picture of the Eighth Wonder, is notable chiefly for two songs: the raucous “For the Love of My Country,” a great rocker in the mode of “All Pretty for the T.V.” and “My World Falls Down”; and “Digging Deep,” maybe the only wholly successful ballad Poor Old Lu ever recorded. Hunter’s voice has never been smoother, floating on top of acoustic guitar, lead bass, and vibraphone—and then, unexpectedly and wonderfully, the second verse is sung by emo superstar Jeremy Enigk. No word if he ever got his necklace back from Nick Barber.
Mindsize (1993). Mindsize is the band’s first record made by a real producer (Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos) in a real studio, and the leap in sound quality over the previous year’s Star-Studded Super Step is remarkable. The band was coming into their own in terms of arrangements, too—the songs that appear on both records have more intricate and layered guitar work on Mindsize than on Star-Studded, for the most part without losing any of the raw energy of the previous record. The new songs are even better, especially the funk-rock anthems “All Pretty for the T.V.” and “So Good to See Me” and the janglier “Cruciality,” all of them deeply indebted to their time period in the best possible way. But when the album slows down, as on “Do I?” and “To Be Awake,” it suffers. (Ballads were never really Poor Old Lu’s thing.)
THE DISCOUNT BIN
Star-Studded Super Step (1992). Poor Old Lu’s debut was recorded in a spare room of the band’s church in three days in 1992. The sound quality is much better than that description might lead you to believe, however—if anything, its origins are a testimony to Aaron Sprinkle’s talent as a producer and engineer. Even so, it is not a great album. The band is still learning who they are and the sort of song they want to write, and while the pieces are all there—the Alice in Chains-style grunge of “Bartholomew Higgins,” the funk rock of “Peapod,” the chiming guitars of “This Theatre”—they haven’t quite clicked into place yet. Their best was yet to come, which is exactly how it should be on a self-recorded demo. (Originally released only on cassette, Star-Studded Super Step was rereleased on CD in 1995, along with two songs from the band’s original demo and several outtakes from the Mindsize sessions.)
FOR FANS ONLY
The Waiting Room (2002). A great band catches lightning in a bottle, which is one reason why reunions are often so disappointing. For 3 minutes and 47 seconds, Poor Old Lu’s reunion album, The Waiting Room, seems as though it will catch lightning again. The opening cut, “Revolve,” ranks with their best songs, featuring a stellar guitar part and Hunter’s impassioned vocals. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is rather glossily anonymous. The rhythm section, in particular, has none of the power of their previous records—not a single bass line or drum part sticks out, which is a real sin from musicians as good as Nick Barber and Jesse Sprinkle.
GREATEST HITS, ETC.
Like most of the other bands on Alarma Records, Poor Old Lu put out a compilation, Chrono, when KMG bought the record label in the late 1990s. Chrono is not quite as inessential as some of the other greatest-hits packages of the time, but it doesn’t include anything from Star-Studded Super Step, and it’s filled out with some very weak remixes and a “mellow version” of “Bliss Is.”
Poor Old Lu’s last show before their reunion was recorded and released as In Their Final Performance in 1998. The sound is pretty good, the crowd is very enthusiastic, and Poor Old Lu was a great live act, so it’s definitely worth checking out for fans of the band.
Many. Both the Sprinkle brothers have put out a number of solo albums, and each of their solo careers deserves an essay on its own. Aaron Sprinkle also fronted the bands Rose Blossom Punch and Fair, which I’ll probably lump in with his solo albums if I get around to writing about them. Jesse Sprinkle’s talents as a drummer have been much in demand, probably most notably by the band Demon Hunter. Nick Barber, Wikipedia tells me, played with Meekin Pop and Blue Collar Love, two bands I have never heard of. Hunter released one EP with This Diminishing West–again, I have not heard it.