The Phantom Tollbooth
August 1999 Pick of the Month
Artist:  Poor Old Lu 
Label: KMG Records 
Length: 16 tracks / 65:50 minutes 
With the musical focus shifted lately to female singer-songwriters, hip-hop, techno, ska, and now swing, grunge may currently be passé, but earlier this decade that rough and rumble rock form ruled. From among the distinctively Christian sphere, Poor Old Lu was one of few bands that rose to prominence, pleasing both the masses and the critics with their gutsy yet precise, progressive grunge noise making. Their career as one of a trio of preeminent Seattle bands, along with Sometime Sunday and Grammatrain, was short-lived, but their prolific legacy is saluted with the recent release of Chrono.

Despite a name drawn from a main character in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books that conjured a gentler sound than the band actually offered, Poor Old Lu was always a bit different from their peers. No less energetic than their fellow Seattlites Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and nearly as melodic and accessible as Nirvana, the Lu gang used their talents to encourage hope rather than frustration. Their message was rarely about mere contemporary angst, and more about spiritual solutions to such modern maladies. They spoke to a wide range of folks with intelligent and poetic commentary on life and faith using music that was certainly crunchy like their colleagues but never short on creativity.

Whereas all the band member's contributions were noteworthy--from Scott Hunter's distinctive, almost breathy vocals to Nick Barber's throbbing bass lines and Aaron Sprinkle's celebrated waves of guitar work--it is Jesse Sprinkle's compelling talents as a drummer and percussionist that truly stand-out. Together, however, they are credited for a seamless sound that inspired as much contemplation as it did moshing and vigorous air-drumming action. Always tinkering at their trade, it would be unfair to dismiss them as your typical grungesters, and the wide variety of sounds on Chrono bears this full testimony.

With a meager three full-length albums and one EP to their credit, picking songs for this retrospective ought to have been a no-brainer. And indeed, most of what is considered their very best is honored here in a collection that revisits their hits in chronological order beginning with 1993's Mindsize, moving through 1994's Sin and 1995's Straight Six and onto 1996's A Picture of the Eighth Wonder. Each of these albums offers the appropriate, expected cuts in a reasonable ratio of songs per album. Regrettably some fine songs were passed over, like The Cure-esque "Rail," but KMG Records have foregone few of the essentials.

As an added bonus, the richly delivered acoustic song "Drenched Decent"from Mike Knott's 1994 Brow Beat collection is also included. A few of the other songs are presented as remixed versions, but they do not widely diverge from the originals for the most part. Although the mix of "Where Were All of You" renders the song a bit more dramatically, in contrast the new mellow version of "Bliss Is" may leave some fans pining for inclusion of the original. It was a perfectly good song that is performed too mutely here.

As with KMG's other re-releases and best-ofs, the packaging is disappointingly sparse, with no photos, lyrics, essays, or other insights. Despite the remixes and due to the lack of new songs or harder to find material lifted from the vaults, this collection offers little more than a tidy place to collect their best. Nevertheless, these tightly played songs definitely deserve revisiting.  Moreover, those unfamiliar with Poor Old Lu's work can see what they missed. This is one Seattle band that deserved better. Grunge may be dead, but long live the Poor Old Lu legacy.

Steven S. Baldwin       (6/11/99)

Track Listing:
From Mindsize

From Brow Beat From Sin From Straight Six From A Picture of the Eighth Wonder