Reviews: Berliner Grotesk
THE BIG TAKEOVER
by Michael Toland
The umpteenth album from the ever-prolific Anton Barbeau, Berliner Grotesk is a tribute of sorts to the Sacramento native’s adopted city. Leaning heavily on synthesizers and other keyboards, the record crosses Barbeau’s distinctive quirk pop with the chilly atmospheres associated with Berlin’s musical history – except when it doesn’t. For every Weimar-era inspired bit like the title track or “The Gruff Exterminator,” there’s a warmer, less concept-driven track like the piano/vocal “I Been to Bromley” or the lovely ballad “Horns,” or an inspired bit of tomfoolery like “Down Weird Dog.” Not to mention “Disaster On Sandwich Island,” which starts out cold and ends up warmer than a sleeping kitten, or the folk-rocking “don’tforgettogetyourfingerwet,” or the reggae-inflected cover of the Beatles’ “Love Me Do.” Basically, despite the concept implied by the title, Barbeau does what he always does: follows his muse into whatever pocket universe best exploits his oddball lyrics and winning melodies. Which is all fine – the world could always use a pop auteur for whom the only thing to take seriously is the hook.
I got to know Anton Barbeau's new album Berliner Grotesk at a single sitting, almost without realising it early the other morning. It's a highly listenable record that slots impeccably within a particular tradition. That of Brecht and Weil, Brel, Gainsbourg, Scott Walker, Bowie, Eno, Cave, Hitchcock and Haines.
Arch, bordering on camp, Barbeau adopts a persona from the opening note and maintains it for the course of the record. It's a 'seen it all, done it all' fin de siecle pout, though it's all good spirited, never plunging towards darkness as Cave and Walker do, and you get the sense his tongue is very firmly in his cheek throughout.
Barbeau is from Sacramento, California, though you wouldn't know it. Like Walker, the tone he takes is resolutely European and he pulls off the conceit with considerable elan. The eleven vignettes on Berliner Grotesk pass by in the blink of the eye. This is defiantly cult stuff, for those with particular tastes and Barbeau caters for them impeccably.
Anton Barbeau has recorded with members of XTC, The Egyptians (as in Robyn Hitchcock and the...), and loads of other great names alt-rock names. He's an impressive composer, and a performer who only rarely gets lost in his own cleverness. His newest album, Berliner Grotesk, is part of a trilogy, but don't let that prevent you from coming in on this one on its own terms, because, really this record contains some of Anton's best, loveliest compositions, and ones which really do see him earn his place to be name-checked next to the kind of artists he's worked with previously.
At times here on Berlinker Grotesk, Barbeau tries his hand at material that sounds like a pastiche of showtunes and art-rock, like on the title-track and "I Been to Bromley", but on other cuts his approach is more direct and affecting. "Baby Can You" is catchy and charming, like something Todd Rundgren tried to write over and over again in the Eighties, while "Horns" is some odd mix of the kind of material that both Nilsson and John Lennon pursued in the Seventies. The obvious affection Anton displays here on this number and others for the former Beatle's work is at odds with the rather misguided cover of "Love Me Do" that somehow earned a place on Berliner Grotesk. Never my favorite song from the Fab Four, I suppose Barbeau gets points for at least trying something like this.
Still, the best song on Berliner Grotesk was for me "dontforgettogetyourfingerwet", a number where Anton sounds a whole lot like Phil Keaggy on that Sundays' Child album, which is to say he sounds remarkably similar to an Eighties artist who took their cues for how to do power-pop from old Beatles records. And I can't think of a better compliment to offer than that.
Anton Barbeau's latest album was recorded at various locations across Germany, USA and UK, and is mostly Anton solo, except for three tracks that each feature a guest musician, namely Morris Windsor (The Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians) on drums, multimedia artist and Beehive label owner Julia VBH on vocals, and Paul Kuchenbuch on trumpet. The album opens with the lopsided oompah cabaret of the title track, and also includes a cover of The Beatles' Love Me Do, reinvented as one part reggae, one part early 80s synthpop. Down Weird Dog is an amusing tale of the pros and cons of dog ownership, Anton's wit exemplified in lyrics like "You might be god in a backwards way, but you're a little too forward with my leg today". The humour of the song is offset by its melancholic arrangement, pairing stark piano with spacey vintage synth. The Gruff Exterminator is psychedelic synthpop setting surreal humour to a hugely catchy melody. don'tforgettogetyourfingerwet is infectious summery powerpop with a quirky edge, incorporating an extravagant synth solo that lends a prog touch to the piece. Final song Boxcat Blues features a pensive, melancholic melody and piano arrangement combined with ethereal electronics and contrasted with Anton's absurdist, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Poppy and catchy yet with a sense of the bizarre.
by Andrew Young
The prolific Californian born but Berlin resident Anton follows up his superb Natural Causes album of last year with a new album of self penned songs (excluding ‘Love Me Do’). It has a quite bonkers cover of Anton sitting on his piano stool, wearing a blue blanket, a welder’s helmet and holding a broom.
Travel has certainly informed his recent albums and his love of words means that his songs often contain some odd choices, this latest album being no exception. The opening song ‘Berliner Grotesk’ sees Anton playing a waltz in a Brecht/Weill style. The song is also quite catchy, celebrates insects and nature, but is really a love song with soaring chorus. Anton does his best Dick Van Dyke impression with ‘I Been To Bromley’. Here he hangs out with the Frond and spies the Queen in her brown Bentley in Bromley. The album features Anton utilizing his keyboards a lot more; in fact he plays most of the instruments himself. ‘Love Me Do’ the old Beatles tune follows and is rendered in a cod reggae style complete with Waspish keyboard fills.
‘Down Weird Dog’ is next with Anton’s play on words of the favourite Yoga position “downward dog”, it is a short sparse tune with some fine wordplay. This down weird dog is not backwards about coming forward and utilizing his leg for relief. ‘The Gruff Exterminator’ is about the secrets of a cross dressing man, mentions Hot Rats and features Julia VBH on backing vocals. ‘Baby Can You’ is a short piano led worry wart of a song. It concerns some sort of home grown plant and blackbirds baked in a pie. ‘Horns’ is frankly weird, a song about gluing horns to the head of a girl, simple piano, a sly three note nod to ‘Hey Jude’, more birds now arrive in the form of sparrows at the door, a pile of feathers and a beak.
‘Not The World’s Most Wave-Formed Man’—the title being probably a misheard “well informed man”—another song in waltz time with a pretty keyboard solo. ‘Disaster On Sandwich Island’ is a short piano based song about ecology. ‘don’tforgettogetyourfingerwet’ rocks a bit harder, and is both melodic and inventive; it’s enlivened by a wonky keyboard solo. The album ends with ‘Boxcat Blues,’ a simple piano led song, it’s very English, with its mentions of cups of tea, it’s all held together with Elmer’s glue. So, another fine album by Anton who has certainly hit a purple patch and is on a roll right now.
by Gareth Thompson
A native son of California, it’s arguably his European influences that have shaped Anton Barbeau’s music the most. Steeped in psych-rock and underground club-tronica, his work blends an unerring ear for melody with a zany eye for poetry. Maybe his finest hour came in 2018 on Natural Causes, a record that sounded like some lost meeting between Kevin Ayers and John Lennon. It really was that good: a love bomb of tunes that fairly mushroomed in your mind. Now comes Berliner Grotesk, imagined as part of a trilogy including Magic Act (from 2016) and Natural Causes.
Each hypnotic hoot of Barbeau’s voice remains full of laughter and surprise. But anyone hoping for a sunsplashed repeat of the previous album should look away now. Think of Berliner Grotesk as more like returning to the scene of a summer romance. It’s a case of looking for new experiences in the same place, rather than dwelling on the past. And the great conjuror certainly has some fresh tricks in his hat to amuse us. The title track’s junky cabaret is akin to The Tiger Lillies or Agnes Bernelle and offers a thrillingly dark waltz. In a flash, the master of ceremonies is having a butcher’s around London, as ‘I Been To Bromley’ gets bluesy with alehouse piano. A brief cover of ‘Love Me Do’ feels choppy and rootsy, reminding us what a groovy kinda polka the original was.Maybe only Barbeau could pen an ode to some leg-humping canine and pull it off movingly. ‘You might be god in a backwards way/But you’re a little too forward with my leg today’ he croons on ‘Down Weird Dog’. The electro-shuffle of ‘The Gruff Exterminator’ slyly gets you singing to stanzas born from fetish and melodrama, where the lead character has ‘a velvet eyepatch and a thrice-broken nose’. We’re in the archly camp worlds of Marc Almond or Neil Hannon here, but then come two tracks that highlight the great paradox that is Anton Barbeau.
Few others blessed with this man’s melodic gift would shackle their commercial odds so wilfully. Instead of layering his dulcet tunes over bankable lyrics, he revels in doing the opposite. Even to the point of teasing. ‘Baby Can You?’ opens with the winning lines, ‘Baby can you show me/How to know myself like you know me?’ The stage is set for a chart-topping weepie, but Barbeau subverts this into an ode about homegrown stuff and inner questing. More dreamlike balladry on ‘Horns’ then morphs into something quite sorcerous. Maybe this is why we must revere Barbeau – he’ll always belong to us and not to ‘them’.
Elsewhere there’s the zany serenade of ‘Not The World’s Most Wave-Formed Man’, a sweeping parable in ‘Disaster On Sandwich Island’ and euphoric radio-rock on ‘don’tforgettogetyourfingerwet’. The twilit closer ‘Boxcat Blues’ is a twinkling elegy with jumbles of Pythonesque and Dantean imagery.
Subversive as ever, Barbeau offers another shot of haywire genius on Berliner Grotesk. Only a total tomfool would resist this madcap’s embrace.
BIG BEAUTIFUL NOISE
by Lee Henderson
Thirty minutes of under the circus top, slightly waggish, waltzing, motley and sometimes mysterious, lonely dark ballads. And then the quasi psychedelic, often haunted stage performances, by what could be an abandoned child from Bob Dylan or Mike Scott (The Waterboys), give the listener a show that must go on. This is the third (and completion) of Anton's 'Transfiguration Trilogy'. The first was Magic Act, followed by Natural Causes. Both of those were brilliant. Although he never originally intended these to be a trilogy, the final products resulted in the connected project. At least in Barbeau's eyes... He has talent for a clever chemistry of hook filled tunes among off kilter rock, and is very generous with it.
He was born in Sacramento, California, but now lives in Berlin. After approximately twenty albums, and working with members of XTC, The Soft Boys, Bevis Frond, Cake, Loud Family, to name a few, Barbeau shows his skills once again in high level song writing, on Berliner Grotesk. The carnival atmosphere sounds natural to his compositions, and some Beatles-like gems appear without effort, in a perfectly linear way. I mentioned Bob Dylan, and his voice reminds me of that man a bit (but more like Mike Scott who I adore), however I prefer Anton's voice by a landslide, I also love his lyrics much more, as I find both the delivery more sincere and valid. The music occupies a place of moveable feast, reality in spades, and life experience tribute. This album is too short, but very top notch in song writing and a superb end to his trilogy.
It’s always good to check in with where Anton’s mind is at currently. Syd Barrett—Robyn Hitchcock—Julian Cope—Anton Barbeau. A logical progression. I like this one a lot. It's pretty much just keyboards and vocals. Makes for an intimate listen. Check out 'Horns'. You're in the room with him as he plays. I like this basic approach. Perhaps the grandest production is the waltzing title track. A few years living in Berlin and a little cabaret can't help but seep in. Surreal and dark. There's hints of a 21st century Arnold Layne in 'The Gruff Exterminator'. Bevis Frond is name-checked in 'I Been To Bromley' and there's even a totally unexpected version of 'Love Me Do' but as light reggae! It works though. Let's face it, that track has been left forgotten about except for appearing now and then on compilations as a pointer to where it all began. Anton's actually made it work for its living again. Superb melodies, good vocal arrangements and plenty of imagination throughout the album, there's nothing wrong with where Mr B. is at for the moment. The more I listen, the more I think it's actually got the makings of a modern masterpiece about it. I'll stick my neck out...
Hailing from Sacramento via Berlin, Anton Barbeau's final instalment in his Transfiguration Trilogy could easily have been written from the eye of the Uffington Horse itself. In essence, it’s a charming dark cabaret, which crosses into the realm of a new modern condition. Here, a Neo-Weimar school hall piano isn’t entirely apart from Brechtian trickery, and the sensibilities of the Threepenny Opera.
Tracks such as ‘Not the World’s Most Wave-Formed Man’ feature the generational trumpet that would be comfy-cosy on a Scott Walker B-Side. Others such as ‘I Been to Bromley’ (which makes a direct reference to Anton’s work with The Bevis Frond) and ‘Boxcat Blues’ have a tender wit that lets the heads know that this record is firmly within Julian Cope’s stone circle.
If you’re not familiar with Anton Barbeau, rest assured that he’s done some pretty cool stuff. A bibliography full of italics that goes something like ‘folk from XTC, The Soft Boys, the Loud Family, et al’. A body of work that seems to respect you as its recipient precisely because it makes no immediate claim on your base understanding. Instead, it cuts you some breathing space to apply whatever you get from it intuitively and sympathetically.
But, back to Berliner Grotesk. It’s smart, it’s catchy, it’s cool, it’s synth-peppered with transcendence, and it’s got some right-on beats and some good pacifistic left hooks. Charming, intriguing, wordy (see “Cain said to Abel put the sable on, and Abel said to Cain ‘I much prefer chiffon.'”). You know that red shape in Magritte’s The Banquet? This addition to your record collection has a similar resonance. Stick a red sphere in the woods and wonder if it’s an illusion.
Blackbird pie, sharp as a German leather whip. Nuance supports the abstraction upon which good cabaret depends. Said with a great deal of conviction—you’ll want to have a cup of tea with this one.
Gewoonlijk presenteert Barbeau zich als (power)popartiest, maar op deze nieuwe plaat voor het Pink Hedgehog-label doet de cultheld zich vooral gelden als toetsenist/singer-songwriter. Nog altijd met een onmiskenbare popinslag resulteert het in een van zijn mooiste platen.
Barbeau usually presents himself as a (power) pop artist, but on this new record for the Pink Hedgehog label, the cult hero is primarily a keyboardist / singer-songwriter. Still with an unmistakable pop impact, it results in one of his most beautiful albums.