No album screams “1995” like the soundtrack to Kids, Larry Clark’s voyeuristic, vértité-styled document of New York City youth gone wild, aka the Euphoria of its time. While Kids is best remembered today as the film that unleashed the anarchic sensibilities of screenwriter Harmony Korine and introduced Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson to the big screen, its soundtrack signified a distinctly mid-’90s musical moment when the dusty veneer of hip-hop began filtering into the hermetic, bedroom-bound sound of DIY rock. This was a post-Beck landscape of beats and bongs, where the Beastie Boys were leading alt-cultural arbiters and Kim Gordon was launching streetwear. Still, even as this rhythm-driven sea change was pulling in noisemakers like Jon Spencer and the Butthole Surfers, it was strange to find Lou Barlow standing at the center of it.
For much of ’90s, Barlow was indie rock personified: the bespectacled avatar for the genre’s scrappy energy, resourceful ingenuity, and unfiltered expressionism. Following his infamous ouster from Dinosaur Jr. in 1989, Barlow poured his creative energies into a number of home-recording pursuits, the most notable of which—Sebadoh—eventually evolved into a potent fuzz-pop power trio. By 1994’s Bakesale, the eccentric tape-manipulation strategies that initially defined the Sebadoh catalog had given way to the streamlined songwriting and heartfelt address that would turn Barlow into an emo icon, but his penchant for mischief would find a new outlet. Around the same time, he and fan-turned-friend John Davis introduced the Folk Implosion, whose very name—a self-deprecating riff on Spencer’s braggadocious Blues Explosion—advertised its low ambitions. The duo’s 1994 debut, Take a Look Inside, was built on the same rickety foundations as Sebadoh’s earliest records, but its quirk-punk song sketches felt closer in spirit to the lo-fi lunacy of Ween. Nothing about this venture suggested it would soon be the incubator of Barlow’s first and only Top 40 hit.
But after developing a pen-pal relationship with fellow outsider-art aficionado Korine, Barlow and Davis suddenly found themselves in a proper studio—Boston’s Fort Apache—scoring scenes for what would become Kids. Flanked by TV/VCR set-ups, the duo took full advantage of the facility’s instrument inventory (saxophone, synth, vibraslap) and ventured down musical dark alleys inspired by the film’s gritty urban milieu. As they swung between dubby dirges, Satie-sampling beatscapes, and cabaret-jazz squawks, they hit a bullseye with “Natural One,” a psych-funk confection that momentarily transformed Barlow from indie rock’s foremost sensitive soul into its unlikeliest dancefloor seducer. Despite not actually appearing in the film, the song became the centerpiece of the soundtrack album, and its surprising chart success would make Kids’ musical companion a staple in every discerning college student’s 5-disc CD changer.
As an underdog victory story and an exemplar of alt-rap aesthetics, the Kids soundtrack has long stood as the ultimate mid-’90s time capsule—a fate reinforced in recent years by its spotty availability on streaming services. In its original incarnation, the Kids soundtrack resembled a Barlow-curated mixtape, with various Folk Implosion pieces complemented by songs from Daniel Johnston, Slint, and Sebadoh. The album’s release through Polygram subsidiary London Records made it the first major-label-affiliated product on Barlow’s CV, though the Folk Implosion never signed to London directly. In the ’90s this was a coup: They could benefit from a big label’s promotional muscle without being under its thumb. In the streaming era, however, old soundtracks featuring various artists affiliated with multiple labels face a complicated path to our listening queues (and those that make it often appear with key tracks grayed out due to digital-rights issues). Kids’ fragmented history on DSPs—with different partial permutations of the record available on different services and in different regions, if at all—has diminished the commercial high-water mark of Barlow’s career into a faded, did-that-actually-happen memory.
Music for KIDS rights that wrong, by filling the hole in the Folk Implosion’s digital catalog and clearing the way for the long-overdue addition of “Natural One” to your Essential ’90s Alternative playlist. But this is not a reissue of the original soundtrack album; rather, it’s a collection of all the music that Folk Implosion created in this period, including tracks heard in the film, stuff that got left on the cutting-room floor, songs that would find their proper home on later releases, and a couple of alternate versions that uncork the material’s latent club-hopping potential. (Few words so expediently transport you to a specific time and place like remix credits for UNKLE and Dust Brothers.) Taken as a whole, Music for KIDS is less a totem to Clark/Korine’s cult flick than an illuminating glimpse into the evolution of Barlow’s very own proto-Postal Service—a beat-driven side project that, for a brief moment, outshone his main gig.
At the very least, this collection reaffirms that Folk Implosion deserved to be a two-hit wonder. “Nothing Gonna Stop” takes the “Natural One” template and jacks up the pulse: Davis’ drums lock into a sampled Silver Apples bass loop to forge the missing link between those ’60s hypno-psych innovators and the after-midnight breaks of DJ Shadow, providing a relentless, pulsating counterpoint to Barlow’s slackadasical rap-speak. By comparison, the incidental instrumentals lack the same sense of frisson, either ending too soon (the strung-out psychedelia of “Jenny’s Theme”) or going on too long (the bongo-powered, synth-blitzed jam “Nasa Theme”). But by liberating these recordings from ’90s purgatory, Music for KIDS highlights their uncanny prescience: The stark, stalking “Crash” points the way to a post-rock future, while the collection’s other Silver Apples tribute, “Simean Groove,” feels like a blueprint for the sort of wiggy, percussive workouts that Caribou would master years later.
As Barlow tells it, the success of the Kids soundtrack had no significant impact on the Folk Implosion’s long-term commercial fortunes (or lack thereof), but they did emerge from these sessions a changed band. You can hear it in the rhythm-forward tracks here that would later surface on 1997’s Dare to Be Surprised, an album situated at the precise midpoint between songcraft and soundscaping. Where a track like “Burning Paper” may begin as a typically fraught first-person address from Barlow (“I wrote you a letter but I threw it away”), its percolating beats, slinky groove, and chanted hooks position it as a forerunner to 2000s indie pop/R&B crossovers like Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move.” But most impressive is “Insinuation,” which blows up the boom-bapped indie-pop sound of the Kids soundtrack to an even grander scale, by rolling the duo’s churning guitars and dramatic string drones into a tense, slow-burning masterwork. As the ’90s wound down, indie rock would gradually outgrow its roots as punk’s geeky younger cousin to mutate into a more sophisticated, richly textured artform, and in hindsight, the Folk Implosion’s Kids experiments provided a distant early warning of the shifting tides. For years, streaming obstacles have tethered this music to its time. But now, Music for KIDS sounds way ahead of it.
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