Straight Six EP

Poor Old Lu (Alarma Records)

I picked up my first Poor Old Lu record in a sale bin at my local Christian record store. It was In Their Final Performance, and I was a sophomore in college. I didn’t really know anything specific about Poor Old Lu. Sure, I’d heard them referenced by other Christian acts I liked, but it definitely helped that the album was on sale for half the original list price.

When I got home and plugged in my headphones, a light bulb appeared over my head. It was different than the ones that appeared when other scions of the Christian alternative universe first visited my world. This record featured bristling guitars, a passionate lead singer, and the sort of spiritual angst that resonated with my soul. So, if this live record was the last thing ever released by the band, I had to track down everything else. After a few paychecks and a few special orders, I tracked down the band’s catalog.

While Sin might be the band’s most acclaimed record and A Picture of the Eighth Wonder their most accomplished, the Straight Six EP resonates with me most deeply. Having grown into this record over the past 15+ years, I now view it as a prayerful journey that begins with introspection and reflection before pouring out into responsible action in pursuit of moral clarity.

Think of this as an exercise in lectio divina set to great rock music heavily influenced by Sunny Day Real Estate, The Choir, Adam Again, and anything ever touched by Michael Knott. The album as a whole is steeped in ‘90s alternative rock staples — searing guitar crunch, propulsive drumming, and angsty energy — but the band made some interesting decisions in the producer’s chair. Curious sound effects and spoken word snippets bookend most songs, as if the songs are interrupting (breaking through?) everyday conversations. The music itself often pans hard to the right and left, creating some mild disorientation for the listener, but it also prevents you from letting the songs become mere background noise.

The Straight Six EP kicks off with “Lie, Lie, Lie” — jangly ‘90s art-pop and a paean to an unfulfilled life: “Tired of seven hours a day/And weekends that go too fast/I set my sights on boardwalk streets/And a sunset that will last.” Scott Hunter’s protagonist searches for something better than a workaday existence, but since the he’s not sure where to look, he ends up doing whatever makes him feel good. When he intones, “Tired of tears and a broken heart/And love that fades too fast/I set my sight for golden streets/And a joy that will ever last,” he realizes he’s forsaken his beliefs and lied to himself in pursuit of an empty life filled with transient pleasures. So, he stops his fruitless quest and starts to pray.

This prayer commences with “Bittersweet,” as he questions his motives in light of his broken relationship with the Savior. Passages like “And it shook me all up/And it stirred me around/But it left me cold and wanting/‘Cause it had no ground/Oh, none to be found” come straight out of the darker Psalms like the 22nd, Job, or Jeremiah — the trials are hard, and the way is unclear, but you might be better off trusting God even if you’re not sure what’s happening. The emotional weight of the track is bolstered by a heady brew of swirling electric guitar noise, rich bass runs, and powerful drum fills.

A deliciously descending minor key melody from Aaron Sprinkle’s guitar introduces us to “Slipknot,” but again, it’s Hunter’s theological musings that give this song its weight. He openly discusses the spiritual validity of fear, confusion, hate, and pain in life. “And pain/Does it fall upon your life like rain?/It will not kill or make you insane/Just don’t bow your neck/To the cutter’s blade” represent a welcome change from typical CCM fare while still encouraging the protagonist to put his faith in God despite the uncertainty.

With “Digging Deep,” we’ve arrived at the Dark Night of the Soul portion of our lyrical journey. After becoming entrenched into the depths of his malaise, the protagonist finally reaches a hand up to the God that’s never really left him, no matter how far he’s run. This profound “A ha!” moment is made more sublime by Jeremy Enigk’s plaintive, desperate guest verse: “Gone thru life and death/And what remains/If any blemish hang your head in shame/Like a fever that just keeps you down/Would you simply let it stay around?”

For the love of this country, hey/ would I live so to fade away?/ For the love of this country, hey/ would I fall?

And now we’ve come to my favorite track of this project — “For the Love of My Country.” Emerging from the brooding of the prior song, Hunter rages against an orthodoxy and orthopraxy that’s been construed into misplaced patriotism. The thrust of this polemic lie in responses to the line “For the love of this country” — “One man pinned up and traded away,” “How he laid down his love of land,” “How we shake our fists angrily,” and “Would I live so to fade away.” He wonders openly if we really want live as Jesus did or if we’d rather just talk a good game to score theological and political points. He’s decided to ask tough questions of his religious community, since it’s not the time to sit pat on easy answers.

After that white-hot spot of ‘90s angst, “Speak Soft” brings us back down into heartfelt introspection, what Hunter himself called “a wonderful and terrible picture of confusion, fear, and consequence.” This cover of an obscure ‘80s Christian rock band, The Swoon, names the protagonist as Jerry, and he faces a series of scenarios regarding the true nature of freedom. Specifically, the lyrics discuss whether freedom is ultimately physical or spiritual in nature: “Prison could be a nice place to live/The bars on the window like bars on a crib/And freedom is the least desired gift/to give.”

As Hunter’s intoxicating vocals plead over and over again — “Speak soft, baby don’t you talk to me” — the thrust of the track occurs in the concluding stanza: “Jerry had some beers and started to weep/It’s time to turn away, it’s his time to sleep/Don’t trouble yourself with seeking peace/Go cheap.” Too often, we seek the easy, the convenient, the accessible, the familiar because it doesn’t require us to do the hard work of contending with uncertainty, facing our issues, and seeking help no matter how embarrassed we might feel. This entire record challenges us to address our fears with openness and transparency, even though we really don’t know the way.

Musically, the Straight Six EP was a smart, smooth distillation of Poor Old Lu’s corpus into a singularly accessible whole. The pop sensibilities grooved, the folk tinges were appropriately emotive (without being emo), and the rock was loud, proud, and charged. It’s a good record.

But the reason I continue to love and admire Poor Old Lu is because the band encouraged me to be a thinking Christian who wasn’t afraid of not knowing, even while still continuing to place my faith in God. The band was an island of honest intellectual musings amidst an ocean of Christian acts either toeing the party line (like dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, or Newsboys) or being overtly obfuscatory (like many early Tooth and Nail bands).

There were never enough of this sort of band in CCM proper, much less the alternative CCM world being discussed in the Chrindie ’95 project. I raise my glass to Poor Old Lu and the Straight Six EP — may the impact of your excellent music and philosophical lyricism continue to be felt in those people who have been blessed by your art.