anton

Reviews: Stranger

POPMATTERS
by Adam Sobsey

Stranger is Anton Barbeau's newest album, but in the case of this prodigiously productive artist, it might be more appropriate to use the word “current” instead of “newest”. Since making Stranger, Barbeau has already recorded a two-disc extravaganza entitled Morgenmusik, Nacht Schlager und Frau, which is so new it isn't even out yet. It will be released in 2023—less than three years after his previous double album, the concept-anchored Manbird. In between, Barbeau also delivered Oh the Joys We Live For in 2021, followed by Power Pop!!! in March 2022, barely nine months before Stranger.

That breathless pace is habitual for Barbeau. He has averaged more than an album a year in a recording career that just passed the three-decade mark. That's another reason Stranger (Beehive) might best be called Barbeau's “current” release: the word describes the incessant stream of his music. The title of one of the songs Barbeau wrote for his 2006 collaboration with Scott Miller and the Loud Family, What If It Works?, is ”Flow Thee Water”—an apt mantra for Barbeau's creative approach.

The risk inherent in that approach is that it risks losing Barbeau's individual albums in their creator's wake. His output is so voluminous, not to say relentless, and its quality so consistent that even when Barbeau departs from his DIY pop aesthetic to explore collaborations, alternative genres, etc., it can be difficult to assess any single release on its own unique terms and merits.

But in the case of Stranger, it seems that Barbeau, always a very self-aware artist, may have already done that for us. The lyrics include three of his own canny, succinct, quotable assessments. First, on “Cellar Door”: “Mellotron downstairs / And my love everywhere.” Prominently featured old-school keyboards, check; hippy-dippy omnidirectional good vibes, check. Second, the spoken-word exclamation that pops up a couple of times between songs: “Purple—so very, very purple!” Flamboyant and colorful, check; Prince-like in his singularity, check.

And then, on “I C U”: “You wouldn't believe the dream I had / The Beatles and Devo locked in battle high on Petřín Hill”. The Fab Four (check) collide with New Wave (check) in altered consciousness (check) and from a heightened vantage point—double-check. Not only does Barbeau's idiosyncratic pop synthesis seem to soar over virtually all of its genres, he always seems to be in flight, from his native California to his Anglo-pop of London to his exile's artist's quarters in Berlin. (Speaking of check, or rather, Czech, Petřín Hill is in Prague, a city just four hours by bus from Berlin and surely familiar to Barbeau, who tours Europe regularly and widely as a live performer.)

We could let those lines speak for Stranger and turn our attention toward Barbeau's next album, which is already faintly visible on the upstream horizon. But isn't that letting ourselves—and Barbeau—off the hook too easily? Allowing his records to pass by without remark allows their sheer quantity to obviate quality assessments or even to stand in for it. It's also to ignore the obviously high degree of musical craft clearly present in most of Barbeau's work.

A defensible case could be made that his profuseness runs paradoxically against the current of his career: that Barbeau might become less of a stranger to the mainstream were he to release fewer albums in the service of giving each one more space and time (and, not incidentally, more marketing muscle) to achieve full sail, pun intended. He may even be suffering from diminishing returns at this point: when an artist puts out as much music as Barbeau does, some fans will undoubtedly start to feel as though they're drowning in it, or at least eventually feel the need to find other waters and jump ship.

But arguments of this sort feel at once too obvious and, at the same time, illegitimate. For one thing, vastness and frequency of output are essential to Barbeau's work, if for no other reason than his self-evident helplessness to limit it. His music is what it is and as overabundant as it is because he is who he is. Every artist gives us exactly as much as they must.

For another, to lodge a complaint about Barbeau's overabundant production—or to effectively diminish it by not reviewing it—is tacitly to argue that overabundance can only be the privilege of a mainstream artist, that is, an overabundantly popular one. Joyce Carol Oates' 70 books in 50 years don't stop the literati from taking each one about as seriously as the one before, and no one wishes (at least, not out loud) that Balzac had kept some of his 40 novels to himself. We don't stand in front of a roomful of O'Keefes, Picassos, or Rothkos, think of how many more roomfuls of their artworks exist elsewhere in the world, and wish there were fewer of them.

Nor would it matter if we did. Most art by even the most canonical artists goes as widely unread, unseen, and unappreciated as Barbeau's albums are. Regardless of artists' differing levels of public stature and esteem—which is very often simply a matter of luck, coincidence, or even accident—their parturition is equally legitimate, whether they are bestselling novelists or little-known pop musicians. Stranger deserves appraisal just as much as Sgt. Pepper and Are We Not Men? do, regardless of which is “better”. That sort of comparative valuation—against both the canon and Barbeau's discography—fails to hear the album at hand and keeps it at nearly as great a distance as not reviewing it at all.

That disservice would especially slight Stranger, for among all his albums, it might be the one most in need of close and careful recognition. Not because Barbeau is desperate for our attention (in fact, one song wryly lampoons pop stardom) but because he is desperate to recognize himself. Stranger's title track, which opens the album, laments all the ways and places in which Barbeau feels like a stranger: in his hometown, his bed, his own head.

Perhaps it would make him feel more at home, so to speak, to say that Stranger demonstrates once again just how singular he is. Barbeau may feel alienated from himself, but his music—no matter how varied its influences, genres, and vibes—makes him immediately recognizable to the ears. In a sea of indistinct pop music, his sheer unmistakability and inimitability prove that he is a significant and successful artist, regardless of his level of fame. As soon as you hear almost any given Barbeau song, you know it's him, just as you know an Edward Hopper as soon as you lay eyes on it, and just as French readers call each of the Nobelist Patrick Modiano's novels—of which there almost exactly as many as there are Anton Barbeau albums—“a Modiano”.

If you've never heard a Barbeau, listen to a few of them, and you will soon recognize their unique qualities. That warbly baritone. The chromatic tendencies in Barbeau's compositional habits. The Gary Numan-influenced primitive-techno influence goes past the eras of Mellotron to 1980s keyboards and deliberately canned-sounding drum machine loops that support Barbeau's well-integrated guitar. The sunny-sounding melodies have a way of going to some befogged places. The way Barbeau can sound at once incurably restless yet utterly stuck, full of gratitude and confidence but also empty of faith and hope. And there is his natural, incomparable, offhand gift for slightly skewing a received phrase—in a way so canny, even practical, that you can't believe no one thought of doing it before—so that the slight adjustment opens up startling new implications and surprisingly wide vistas of perception, e.g., on Stranger, by singing about life “in an eggshell” instead of “in a nutshell”.

Or what about the repeated line, “You're only as beautiful as your mirror,” appended and repeated almost as an afterthought at the end of “Sugarcube City”? What about the way “I C U” reveals itself not only to be not even slightly about intensive care units (the spaces between the three letters in the title are a tipoff) but also that it is actually building toward a very different kind self-recovery, which is achieved with the repeated line, “I C me in U / I C me in U”? (There's the Prince likeness again, in sly typographical homage.)

Given the album's title and the title track's establishing confession of alienation, Stranger's occasional but pronounced fixation on literal self-reflection creates an ironic tension that runs from beginning to end. The stranger at the microphone is looking everywhere for evidence of himself, even if it's only in the bodiless, deceptive, and often distorted image a mirror yields. Stranger imparts the sense that every album Barbeau makes is another effort to construct a way of seeing himself. What sets the current mirror apart from all the others, perhaps, is that it knows itself to be one. If you're willing to regard it that way, you might see yourself reflected in some of it, too. Barbeau's unique way of holding it up might remind you that there is no true antonym for the word stranger. It might also remind you that the search for ourselves never ends and that one of the most honest and uncompromising ways of expressing that is to keep the current endlessly flowing.

 

THE BIG TAKEOVER
by Michael Toland

Amazingly prolific singer/songwriter Anton Barbeau has long resided on the eccentric end of the pop music spectrum. But, as is the case with kindred spirits like Robyn Hitchcock or Syd Barrett, that doesn't mean he's an unrefined absurdist. Most of the time he uses his seemingly stream-of-consciousness wordplay to convey real emotions, buoyed by his always instantly appealing melodies.

Take, for example, the pair of tracks that lead off his latest album Stranger. Both “Ant Lion” and the title track concern readjustment to life in small-town America after years living abroad – the title track in particular really hones in on the difficulty of being forced back home by a global pandemic. Existential dread takes hold on the otherwise ebullient “I C U,” and the wry but rocking “Cellar Bar” (“I'm coming for you just as soon as I tune my guitar”) wrangles with the notion of keep on keepin' on – but the lovely “Farm Wife” proves that beauty still reigns. He expands his reach beyond his own circumstances on “Death and Divorce,” but, as usual, makes his approach so tunefully that light trumps darkness.

Indeed, while Barbeau's records always tend to be irrepressibly melodic, he seems to really be on his game here: besides the aforementioned, “Sugarcube City, “Dollis Hill Butchers” and the weird but brilliant “Quick To the Basement” revel in his easy ability to spit out hooks. Barbeau lets it all hang out here, both musically and emotionally, and it leads to Stranger being one of his very best records.

 

OUTSIDE LEFT
by John Robinson

Anton Barbeau, musical polymath and synthesist, has been somewhat prolific lately, with several projects in the pipeline and four albums released in the last two years. Whereas the expansive double album Manbird dealt with issues of identity and (dis)location, subsequent albums The Joys We Live For and Power Pop!, have been more homely, set partly in Ant's domestic routine and most recently as fruits of the pandemic, whilst Drones of the Prophet is an album of instrumental and drone music played on a Prophet 6.

Now relocated from Berlin to his wife's family farm in Sacramento, his latest album is Stranger, and stranger: self-described as a rummage in his brain, playing like a "cosmic kid in a candy store". For the uninitiated, Barbeau's sound is generally described as psychedelic pop, heavily Brit influenced, including shorter instrumentals and spoken word sections. A raft of guest performers appear here, via remote contributions from Europe and America, including Greg Curvey of Custard Flux and Adrian Shaw of Bevis Frond. These collaborations, and returning to live performance, are celebrated in the stately worship of key song Cellar Bar.

Having moved back to the US the title song sings of alienation, feeling like a "stranger in my own hometown". Ant Lion similarly has the singer lost in themselves, waiting for inspiration and aware that their fate depends on "their earned income". These songs are crystal bright synth led pieces, whereas Dollis Hill Butchers is murkier, with dirty guitar licks and abattoir-dark percussion. Stone of Fire has a similarly delightful scuzziness, and topographical references over the ocean to Cowley Road show Barbeau's links to the UK. Sugarcube City is a multi-faceted psychedelic hymn which showcases his ability to craft hook laden pop, and the middle eight in particular is beautifully arranged. 

Death and Divorce and Favourite Items are brief interludes, sombre and whimsical respectively, along with experimental sounding interstitial Just Have to Wait There and Soggy Problems, while Quick to the Basement and ICU are witty, razor sharp and sonically varied rock songs.

Ending the album on a personal note, Farm Wife is a love song, to his spouse and the life they have, although self-doubting  "What did you see, was there a sign pointing at me?" and adding that she would "like to shave the beard of me, given the chance and a knife". Similarly the closing ode Slight Chance thanks their partner and reflects on a relationship that was once secret but kept "leaking out in song".

This is a varied and entertaining set of songs, from a great songwriter and arranger already working on his next - double - album, Morgenmusik, for next year.

 

TIME MACHINE PRODUCTIONS
by TimeLord Michalis

Stranger is the 2nd album that our beloved Anton releases this year, after March's Power Pop!!!. Stranger is an album that digs a bit deeper into the mire of Barbeau's farm-bound pandemic mindset. A multi-colored mess of fine, weird music results! There are quite a few contributing musicians here, these are Steve Green, Rosie Abbott, Gregory Curvey, Adrian Shaw, Frederic Quentin, Lorna Morris, Vince DiFiore, Jeff Simons, Sir Thomas Hughes, “Lucy”…

Stranger consists of 14 lil' pieces of pop-art grandiosity while on most of them the lyrics are not only interesting but intriguing too… “I'm A Stranger In My Own Head” sings Anton on the self-titled opener “Stranger”, a mid-tempo cool pop-sike song. The synth and computerized “Ant Lion” follows in a dynamic way, drenched into that 80s Synth period, with a very powerful rhythm, an ideal track to be aired during the first MTV days right after “Video Killed The Radio Star”, superb! “Dollis Hill Butchers” is a fine example of what exactly means Power Pop! Of course, once more, the 80s are all over the track! “Stone Of Fire” is a weird “effected” balladesque song with an intense sing-a-long feel, under a strangely psyched atmosphere, you can describe it as something like an eerie gospel-psych tune… “Sugarcube City” is another cool track electronically flavored with a synth-y atmosphere that reminds me of some of the great “built soundscapes” on the late 70s early 80s Bowie albums! “Cellar Bar” is a discreetly fuzzy pop-sike song while “Death And Divorce” is a short dream-a-delic piece of Art Music! The short Christmas interlude “Favourite Items” opens the field for the brilliant Pop-Sike “ICU” (I See You) while the follow-up is another short strangely effected interlude called “Just Have To Wait There”. “Jesus coming… I'll be Damned…” Anton sings on “Quick To The Basement”, interesting lyrics, male/female vocals, and beautiful melodies, this is Pop-Psych music with an intense nostalgic feel… “Soggy Problems” is another weird interlude while “Farm Wife” is a drum-machine poppy tune, full of 80s aesthetics. The album comes to an end with “Slight Chance”, a balladesque song with an amazing atmosphere, a soundscape that refers directly to the “Let It Be” Beatles era, a track that could fit as an outtake from “Let It Be… Naked”, yeah, that cool! So, “Stranger” is another cool album by Anton Barbeau, full of quality that will not disappoint any of his fans, old or new ones.

 

HERE COMES THE FLOOD
by Hans Werksman

When prolific psych-pop musician Anton Barbeau found himself stuck at his farm during the pandemic, he made the most of it by doing some serious soul-searching and laying the groundwork for his second full-length to see the light of day this year. His first 2022 album Power Pop!!! was an optimistic, outgoing one and now it's companion piece Stranger focuses on people (Farm Wife) and things close by, but with his knack for off-kilter weirdness popping up more than once. Case in point the short holiday ditty Favourite Items sung by Rosie Abbott and the treated "Lucy" vocals for Soggy Problems. Straightforward, simple songs are not part of his musical make-up. Barbeau loves to sneak in little tidbits into his melodies to make the listener sit up and take notice.

Being stuck in one place for an unknown amount of time inspired him to paint a self-portrait of sorts and face the fact that you can be lonely, even while in the company of a loved one. If anything this album explores the grey area between wanting to go into the world again and the hesitation that things could go South yet again.

 

© Anton Barbeau. Photo of Anton by Karen Eng. Web site: interbridge.