Reviews: Natural Causes
THE BIG TAKEOVER
At 25 years and almost 20 albums (and counting), Barbeau is no stranger to fans of eclectic pop rock. That said, the Sacramento-to-Berlin songwriter/multi-instrumentalist's new LP functions as an introduction. Re-recording old songs and adding a few new ones, he presents a resumé of sorts—a series of tracks demonstrating what he does best. As always, he veers from the quirkiness of "It's the Coffee That Makes the Man Go Mad" and "Neck Pillow" to the accessibility of "Summer of Gold," "Magazine Street," and the powerhouse "Just Passing By." But it's his remarkable ability to wrap some truly odd ruminations on "Creepy Tray" and "Secretion of the Wafer" in melodies the Beatles would happily own that makes Barbeau special.
by Dave Cantrell
What began, rather unexpectedly, as a darker, more pointedly topical project called Applewax was soon shelved when, implored from afar to write a “jangly 12-string pop song,” Barbeau realized epiphany-like that the world needed more of that and less focus on all the misbegotten absurdity currently curdling our brew of daily events. Thus did the man summon his ready store of creative agility and all the pieces fell together as if by designed serendipity. By definition, then, a thrown-together, grab baggy amalgam of an album, that fact and the backstory behind it ends up hardly mattering as Natural Causes, full as it is of ebullient beauty in its choice trio of remakes and eight shiny new additions to the guy’s enviable catalog, proves without intending to that there’s nothing more subversive to the arrogant dominant paradigm than gleefully ignoring its regime and those administering it. Expressed in terms of that ‘J’ word, this clutch of pop songs, by its very existence, amounts to a jangly rattling of the cage.
I mean, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking the trippy, Gong-like (though Family-inspired) “It’s the Coffee Makes the Man Go Mad,” the enigmatic pastorale nature of “Secretion of the Wafer,” “Mumble Something”'s resonating, sunny cynicism that makes a certain sense in view of its title being cribbed from the first verse of “Magic Sandwiches” heard five tracks prior, or the spinning lysergic charm of “Down Around the Radio,” this is work that just plain works.
Meticulous, which is to say a kind of carefully messy, these are songs that seem slaved over but spontaneous. It’s the type material that can lead one to fanciful comparisons such as "an American Andy Partridge trying to re-imagine Game Theory a la Robyn Hitchcock." You’ll have your own, I’m sure, but that’s mine (for now) but whatever the case, it’s indispensable to those with a certain pop appetite. You know who you are.
by Andrew Young
This is a very playful record which was recorded at various studios in Berlin, Cambridge, Berkeley and Sacramento. For reference think Robyn Hitchcock, Syd Barrett and The Beatles at their most psychedelic. Instrumentation includes Mellotron, 12 string guitar, Micromoog, fuzzed bass, flute, violin, guitar bass and drums... “Disambiguation” is very catchy and a clear statement of intent from someone with a mind as mad as a box of frogs. The keyboard dominated “Secretion Of The Wafer” sounds a lot like something that English eccentric Robyn Hitchcock would come up with... The record ends with “Down Around The Radio” which if there are any hip disc jockeys out there paying attention, would be snapped up for radio play forthwith, a questing song that pins down the very essence of commerciality, round and round we go. I know where my dial will be tuned, for me this is his finest record so far.
You can tell a man, they say, by the company he keeps. Okay, hardly the most up to date cliche to kick off a 2018 music review with but apt none the less. Apt because the mercurial Anton keeps excellent company and a quick scan through the musical posse who have helped him record this album reveals an ex-Soft Boy, a brace of Corner Laughers, people who bandy around names such as Smash Mouth, Neil Finn, The Pretenders and Sir Paul of McCartney as previous employers and even the marvellous Nick Saloman. With a line up such as that the results can only be great, how could they not?
For those new to the strange and beguiling world from which Anton draws his songs, very simply put he blends the later era Beatles acid laced sonics with a more driven new wave, post-punk edge, particularly when he picks up the pace. And when he does pick up the pace he creates songs like Just Passing By, a rarified rock groover that any number of Paisley Underground acts from back in the day would have fought to the death to get their hands on. But his more usual sonic comfort zone is a gentler, pastel pop place, usually with a very keen eye for a good, and often hippyfied, title.
It’s the Coffee That Makes the Man Go Mad is Barbeau-ism in a nutshell, intriguing title, joyous pop strains, sumptuous harmonies, lilting and chiming tones and a middle section that heads into a strange sort of medieval monastic chant and the suggestion that the inspiration for songs such as this has more to do with something stronger than coffee. Magazine Street is a great slice of pop-rock and Summer of Gold evokes all the hazy joyousness that the name suggests. Being an AB album there is obviously room to wander into odder territory, its pretty much expected and Mumble Something sounds like buzz saws and angry wasps were involved in the sonic finish…in a good way…whilst Creepy Tray is a strange and exotic piece of chamber pop.
If you are a fan of Anton already, this is classic stuff and you probably already have a pre-order in, if you are new to Barbeauland then this is also a perfect place to start and if you have ever wondered how you make an album that walks a fine line between the cultish and the commercial, that is infectious yet original, accessible yet maintaining its integrity, then this is definitely for you.
While Barbeau is a prolific and tireless musician, picking through his catalog for the good stuff can be challenging. But on Natural Causes, it’s easy — as “Magazine Street” is a jangling pop treasure, with a strong bass line and hook in the chorus. “It’s The Coffee That Makes The Man Go Mad” has Anton’s quirky lyrics and instrumentation with some nice harmonies. Some of these tunes are from his past catalog of work, but there is a good amount of polish in the production that makes this his most accessible album in years.
“Disambiguation” and “Magic Sandwiches” both are good distillations of the Barbeau artistic aesthetic, and I like to compare it to Adrian Belew in some other universe. Not everything here sticks, but enough does. More standouts include “Just Passing By” and “Down Around the Radio.” This is the Anton Barbeau that I’ve been waiting for.
We've covered the very wonderful Anton Barbeau a couple of times here at HDHQ—last year's "Heaven Is In Your Mind" 7" and the excellent Three Minute Tease LP made with members of the Soft Boys and XTC. Mr. Barbeau is such a productive and creative free-spirit, it's always reassuring to know that new music is never too far away, and never disappoints. His latest album Natural Causes came out a week ago and is as good an entry point into Anton's oeuvre as you'll find, containing new material mixed in with old favourites re-worked. Eclectic, intelligent and with occasional sphinx-like mystery and depth, it holds together as both a new album and a cohesive "best of," full of shimmering jangle, idiosyncratic melodies, sometimes elusive time signatures and lyrics to maintain your interest and ruminations long after the album's final track fade out.
The record came into being after attempts at a more political album Applewax were ditched. Says Anton—"Applewax was full of gun-loving rednecks and I just decided there was no good putting more of that back into the world." A fair point, and perhaps the material recorded will one day find a suitable release. We can all agree there's perhaps too much heaviness and doom around presently. Optimism, positivity and good vibes are in shorter supply so floppy hats off to Anton for making that decision. Mellotrons, MiniMoogs, 12-string acoustic guitars all contribute to the general breezy, uplifting feel, but the lyrics ensure the record is fun but far from lightweight.
An old favourite "Magazine Street" gets a re-working and opens the album. Among the new material is "Mumble Something" and "Magic Sandwiches" (how can you resist a title like that!). "Secretion Of The Wafer" featured on Anton's recent Fruits de Mer 7" but is here in its earlier original recording. My favourite tracks on the album are "It's The Coffee That Makes The Man Go Mad" with its beguiling time signature and earworm chorus and "Disambiguation," a thought-provoking study in modern psychedelic pop.
Classic Barbeau and a solo record in name but Natural Causes was made with a little help from his friends. Guest musicians include Andy Metcalfe (Soft Boys), Nick Saloman and Ade Shaw (Bevis Frond), Robbie McIntosh (guitarist for The Pretenders, Paul, McCartney), Michael Urbano (Todd Rundgren, Neil Finn) and Karla Kane, who duets with Anton on "Neck Pillow." If you're unfamiliar with the music of Anton Barbeau, Natural Causes is a great place to start.
Raised in Sacramento, California and now based in Berlin, Germany (he’s had stints in merry olde England, too), Anton Barbeau is one of those totally underappreciated songwriters that every city seems to have. The guy really is a talent and can play any instrument. He gets compared a lot to Robyn Hitchcock and every record (he’s got a lot of them out) he seems to get a buncha semi-famous folks to play on them and this one is no exception (no Paul McCartney or anything but he does get Nick Saloman to add some guitar as well as Robbie McIntosh, the Corner Laughers' Karla Kane and Khoi Huynh plus Allyson Seconds, etc.). Despite being so talented I’ve, at times, had a hard time with his records but not this one, it’s hits all the way through. Apparently, his Spanish label, You Are the Cosmos, wondered what a jangly pop record Anton could make and voila! He made one though there’s lots of beautiful psychedelic flourishes on this one as well and it’s an excellent record. Opening cut “Magazine Street” was apparently on his first album way back when (I guess some of the songs on here are re-recorded ones from earlier albums) and don’t miss trippy gems like “Secretions of the Wafer” and “Magic Sandwiches” and the gorgeous, swaying “Just Passing By.” Anton is going to keep doing what he does regardless of whether you listen or not so make it easier on yourself and just listen. Your life will be better and so will his (fun fact side note: the Wikipedia page tells me he’s the cousin to actress Adrienne Barbeau who I’ve had a crush on for like 40 years so how about that).
by Lee Zimmerman
Anton Barbeau has made his name in power pop circles for quite some time now, but sadly, it seems the wider world is simply too slow to catch on. One can only hope that assessment will change with the release of Natural Causes, his exceptional new album and one that finds him pulling out all the stops. Exceptional melodies and an exuberant attitude elevates these grooves and provides them their shimmer. Applying a hint of psychedelia and some tangled philosophy (check out “It’s the Coffee That Makes the Man Go Mad,” a treatise on caffeine versus recreational drugs of the standard variety), Barbeau offers up another varied and vibrant effort, one that’s occasionally woozy but consistently appealing all the same.
Those that gravitate towards songs of a more cosmic variety will find plenty to entice as well. The big and bold opener “Magazine Street” offers initial indication, with other entries such as “Disambiguation” and “Mumble Something” providing assertive backup. The loping “Down Around the Radio” and the chamber pop approach of “Just Passing By” find common ground in their ‘60s sensibilities, further confirmation of the fact that Barbeau is a paisley pop rocker with a prime pedigree and both the talent and mindset to match.
by Ian Rushbury
Natural Causes is a distillation of the essence of Barbeau. It combines the quirks, the melodic devices, the musicianship and the whimsy and presents them in the most user-friendly format to date... Natural Causes would make a great inroad into the strange and beautiful world of Anton Barbeau.
The opening track sets out the stall for the rest of the record. "Magazine Street" is a tidy pop-rock gem, all strummy guitars, airy melody and Andy Metcalfe's overachieving bass adding details and curlicues in a very pleasing fashion. In a perfect world and on a level playing field, this tune would be lurking at the top end of the Top Ten even as we speak. "It's the Coffee That Makes the Man Go Mad" throws a bit of Syd Barrett whimsy into the mix but has the decency to be stuffed full of cute melodic hooks... this record is stuffed with good, solid and most importantly, accessible songs... if he's ever going to make it onto the cover of Rolling Stone, Natural Causes is his best shot so far.
A PESSIMIST IS NEVER DISAPPOINTED
by Glenn Griffith
The new album by Anton Barbeau blends the musician's familiar, playful take on power-pop, with a more lyrical, inspired spin on the sort of stuff Todd Rundgren could once be reliably counted on to provide. Natural Causes is a fine record, one that is sure to appeal to fans of XTC and Jellyfish, and, of course, Rundgren's stuff.
Robbie McIntosh of McCartney's band adds some guitars to the lush "Disambiguation," one of the highlights here, and "It's The Coffee" reminded me of Split Enz a bit, another major compliment to the skills of Barbeau at delivering this sort of thing. Elsewhere, "Magic Sandwiches" sounds like you might imagine, but it's less silly and brighter than you'd figure, while "Just Passing By" positively rocks, the chords sharp and crackling ones. And while I suppose that a lot of listeners will be drawn to this because of how Rundgren-ian lots of Natural Causes sounds, or because of the guests on this record (Andy Metcalfe, members of Bevis Frond, Karla Kane, etc.), but what those listeners should really be attracted to is Barbeau's ease here at crafting material like this. This is really good stuff for power-pop fans, especially anyone who's worn out their copy of Oranges and Lemons.
Ian Hunter via Robyn Hitchcock via Luke Haines, wrapped inside an enigma, the Sacramento born, Berlin-based, Anton Barbeau changes his style of delivery repeatedly yet always maintains an idiosyncratic ingenuity in whatever he does... Not so much softening up as choosing a more personal, peaceable approach to "glorious sounding" maverick pop, Barbeau has produced something quite stunning and timely (Barbeau fast approaching his 50th birthday): a cerebral album both instantly memorable, melodic and yet adventurous and inventive... Fans of Barbeau will be once again charmed by his unique songwriting abilities, and those still unfamiliar with the inimitable generation X artist of renown will find much to love about his psychedelic pop genius.
Once again, Anton Barbeau is an instant favorite here in babysueland. We're been blown away by this guy's music in the past so we were psyched as hell to receive this, his latest album. Prior to recording Natural Causes Barbeau was working on something called the "Applewax project." That project wasn't going as planned, so Anton switched channels and began recording this album. Apparently an excellent move, because these tracks will please the same folks who were so impressed with Magic Act (Barbeau's last album). Causes contains some remakes ("Magazine Street," "Creepy Tray," "Just Passing By"), some songs rescued from the Applewax project, and some that are brand new. Anton plays most of the instruments but the album also features the talents of an extraordinary group of folks (too many to mention here, but take our word for it... this guy associates with some amazing folks). These classic guitar-driven pop tracks may remind listeners of The Young Fresh Fellows or even David Bowie at times. The chord progressions are smart, the melodies wonderfully effervescent, and the vocals absolutely hit the target dead on. Add killer arrangements and thought provoking lyrics into the equation... and you end up with pure pop magic. This is one of those rare cases where everything works. Killer cuts include "Magazine Street," "Disambiguation," "Magic Sandwiches," "Neck Pillow," and "Down Around the Radio." Highly recommended. TOP PICK.
Joined by an assortment of guest musicians, whose collective CV includes The Pretenders, Paul McCartney, the Bevis Frond, Todd Rundgren and The Soft Boys among others, multi-instrumentalist Barbeau has shaped an album of idiosyncratic, acid tinged, "pre-apocalyptic Psychedelic Pop" songs drenched in ancient Mellotrons, analog synths and 12-string guitars... A stunningly brilliant record of fantastic, quirky, timeless Psych Pop that any discerning PsychHead really needs to hear. We gotta admit that down in our psychedelic basement, even though we are massive fans of Cope, Hitchcock, XTC and the Bevis Frond, the psychedelic sounds of Anton Barbeau had gone way below our radar until this beauty dropped through the post portal, so Natural Causes works as both an introduction for new fans of the “cult hero’s cult hero” and a sparkly reminder for those that have tried to follow Anton Barbeau through his limited releases on obscure indies for a while now. Check this out People, you won't be disappointed.