Critical Mass

Reviews of A Splendid Tray

by Doug Cornell

It's a rare thing these days to stumble upon musical genius. While many musicians are happy to travel a currently established road, Anton Barbeau veers off into a direction not heard since the heyday of 60's pop. Blending his own unique vocal and songwriting style with that of Badfinger or the Beatles, Barbeau has made a record unlike anything released over the last several years.

[Anton Photo]

       Photo by Cynthia E. Jones

Barbeau begins A Splendid Tray (is this a goofy title or what?) with an easy-to-take straight ahead rocker, "Black and White Elvis". Don't expect to find virtuoso instrumental performances here. Solid guitars, drums, singing, and clever lyrics are combined to create a complete pop-rock package. Guest artists Scott Miller (Loud Family) and Gabe Nelson (Cake) help Anton's own band, The Drag Team 3, fill out a lush and hummable sound. While this is all fine and dandy, it was the lyrics to "The Banana Song" that gave me the first indication that this was a special album: "I broke the company rules for you, don't I get a banana?". As someone who has had to suck up to management more than once, I wonder were my banana is. I want it. Now.

A ragged, slow electric guitar provides an angst factor while Barbeau floats from impassioned screaming to a gentile falsetto. Barbeau builds a poppier sound with "Third Eye" before going it alone with his acoustic guitar in "Cockroach Song." My ears did a double take when I heard the verse, "Please Sir, I've got a wooden leg, if you want me to beg, I'll beg, but I won't do what you don't want me to," in his song aptly named, "Please Sir, I've got a Wooden Leg." Hold on- did he say "wooden leg?" This is more than catchy, it's so damn hummable that the chorus will haunt you for days.

Barbeau gets mopy in the distorted, bass-heavy "Gone". Elements of 60's flower-pop make an appearance ("Dazzle Girl"), while the acoustic tune "Suicide Toad" slows both the volume and tempo. Arguably the albums masterpiece, "Once In Royal David City" begins with a subtle introduction that builds to an almost-epic layering of sound upon sound. Barbeau captures a gorgeous vocal melody while spinning an opaque lyrical tale of mystical content that has something to do weasels (don't ask).

While on the telephone with a friend, "Sweetness Dream of Me" was playing through my stereo. My friend asked, "Who are you listening to, John Lennon?", which is one hell of a compliment. While Barbeau has a touch of Lennon's nasal singing style, the similarities aren't overwhelmingly noticeable. Closing the album with a lively blast of 60's pop ("Yum Yum Bubblegum"), Barbeau leaves you wishing for more.

It is obvious that a lot of care was taken to create a complex yet uncluttered sound. A Splendid Tray is an album that rewards careful headphone listening while still sounding good through a crappy car stereo. I've heard a lot of terrific indie pop music this year, but A Splendid Tray, with its warped lyrics and smart musicianship, is among the best new music released in quite a while.

Grade: A (Student needs to be watched carefully as he is a bit strange at times.)



Anton Barbeau crafts short, sharp, smart songs, full of power-pop guitars and new-wave synthesizers, sort of like a well-read version of The Cars, or a not-as-well-read version of Robyn Hitchcock. These are whimsical, eccentric, intelligent little tunes about strange and interesting stuff: a trayful of snakes ("Creepy Tray"), a conversation with an insect ("Cockroach Song"), being "trapped in a motel room with Woody Woodpecker" ("Gone"), and spoon-feeding his true love to weasels ("Once In Royal David City"). The wordy, literate "Black & White Elvis" a prayer to transcend the shallowness of his own mind, as previously shaped by the carving knife of television. "Banana Song" finds Barbeau seeking some sort of reward for various efforts, set to a Lennonesque melody and vocal style, and beefy, distorted guitars. With clever, striking metaphors, subject matter about the odd little moments that can mean so much, and ear-catching music, Barbeau stakes his claim to a unique territory in the pop canon; more power to him for having the desire to go there, and the skills to bring back these songs. "I remain a microcosmic pioneer," he sings, and it amounts to a confession. His splendid tray is well worth exploring.


by Tania Biswas

...this man is a brilliant storyteller with all the vivid efficacy of a well-read, eccentric, solitary treehugger on acid.


by John F. Butland

Pop music is rarely this dense or challenging without falling prey to the clever-clever trap of smugness and willful obscurantism. Barbeau crams his oblique, baroque songs with insidious hooks and uncommonly literate lyrics a la Costello and Squeeze. I'm sure I'm only getting part of this right now, due to the out-of-leftfield sonic geegaws and thick fudgy sound, but I'm willing to work at it a while and ferret out all the goodies. Extremely rewarding, if not easy, listening.


by Anne-Louise Foley

Here, Barbeau reaches new heights of weirdness in songs such as "The Banana" and "Yum-Yum Bubblegum"...where Antology was mostly cutesy and hilarious ("a girl like that treating me like this/better hope I miss when I try to run her over"), A Splendid Tray boasts a much darker side. Songs like "Gone" and "Suicide Toad" show that Barbeau is not all about falsettos and arse-wiggling antics. The album's finest hour must surely be "Once in Royal David City," not a cover of a well known chrimbo anthem, but rather a weird sprawling Dylanesque tale with a lovely 80s synthy sound. Equally engaging in a lower key is "Sweetness dream of me," clocking in at almost eight minutes, it displays Barbeau's ability to write a non-cynical, achingly pretty love song. He seems to have a curious fixation with animals and often a deeply emotional song is woven around the lives of reptiles ("Suicide toad") and insects ("Cockroach song").

Weird and totally wonderful, Anton has proved his worth in a world of shite bands such as the Stereophonics. It is a pity that so many teenage girls are singing along doe-eyed to covers of Abba songs that were crap in the first place, when they could be losing themselves in this glorious pop. Splendid Tray is David Gray with an edge he could only have wet dreams about. It's also measures of Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello sung with a slight Green Day accent, all forgiven in the context.


by David Fufkin

Anton Barbeau is a musician of great reputation from Northern California and this release does him justice. Northern California can brag about having as its residents some of the best power pop songwriters in the world. In addition to Barbeau, the area is home to Scott Miller (formerly of Game Theory and presently of The Loud Family who also have a very good new CD out), Chris von Sneidern, The Orange Peels, and many artists I am probably forgetting.

The reason I am focusing on the area is that this release has what I call a power pop Northern California sound which I would describe as very dynamic (not in a wow! kind of way, but in a soft/loud kind of way), musical (melodic, well written), and interesting in the sense that the material is not a slave to sounding like The Beatles or Big Star or whatever pop band that any COOL person does not need to hear in rewritten, lesser form. I mean there is only one Beatles and Big Star, right?

I notice Scott Miller produces the fourth track on the recording, and I hear some of his sound in here, all over it in some of the guitar anthem, non-cliché synth sounds. Of note for those unfamiliar with Barbeau are his vocals that possess an urgency and quality similar to John Lennon, without merely aping him. Here are some contemporary names of singers he resembles: Michael Mazzarella (The Rooks), Richard X. Heyman and Robert Harrison (Cotton Mather). Strong singers all. Lyrics are exceptional throughout. Standout tracks include "Creepy Tray" which with its catchy chorus has a Richard X. Heyman feel circa Heyman's Hey! Man! release (Sire, 1990). Another cool track is the plodding "Gone," a melodic, dark rocker. "Dazzle Girl" is classic Northern California pop -- see above.

All in all, in a perfect world, Barbeau could have a gold record with this, because it's really quality stuff. But it's not a perfect world, and in this Internet-driven, independent time, the hope for artists like Barbeau is that they can sell 10,000 records without the major labels a/k/a "The Man". If you are reading this and you are a power pop fan (God, I hate that term), this recording is worth your hard earned money.


by Marcus Crowder

When locally based songwriter, producer and vocalist Anton Barbeau puts his mind to it, there's always the possibility of brilliance in his music-making. Barbeau's outstanding new CD, A Splendid Tray, is a case in point. There is a surfeit of Anton's ironic, clever, catchy, hummable pop/rock creations. Songs such as "Black and White Elvis," and "Creepy Tray," which open the CD, are enjoyable Barbeau givens, but the meatier songs -- "The Banana Song" and "Please Sir I've Got A Wooden Leg" -- seem more meaningful. In between are such tunes as "Third Eye" and "Yum Yum Bubblegum," while the perfect "Gone" is a song you might hear on your radio morning after morning after morning and never get tired of. The CD closes strongly with the exquisite "Sweetness Dream Of Me" leading the listener to already wonder, "when's his next record coming out?"


by Jeffrey Norman

Bay-Area-by-way-of-Sacramento skewed-pop genius Anton Barbeau releases his fourth, long-awaited CD. Sort of an American Robyn Hitchcock, Barbeau writes tenaciously hook-filled songs whose absurdity wittily conceals the real heart that underlies them: the Einstein of whimsy and soulful eyes joyously playing the fiddle, disguised as Harpo Marx.

The songs rawk, pop, roll, snap, swerve, squinge, blang, bop, hop, and purr contentedly, artfully singing of wooden legs, Elvis, bubblegum, and the titular tray. But then "Gone" and "Dazzle Girl" express a real sense of loss, while "The Banana Song" manages to parlay its absurd metaphor into an insistent and compelling, clenched-fist expression of unrewardedness. The album sounds great, too: Barbeau's quavery, grainy voice is the lewd raconteur at the end of the bar with whom you're entranced in spite of your own better judgment. And cannily surrounded as it is here with oversize factory-closeout guitars, coyly insinuating electric pianos, and synths just like Mom used to make, who could resist?


by AudioCafe

Anton Barbeau's success is a drum that I will beat until someone pays attention, so get used to it. Or even better, buy this disc, get everybody you know to buy it, and save me the time and yourself the aggravation. But I suppose you would have your proof. If you insist. Barbeau, as you may recall, is a California basement recordist who doubles as a pop mastermind, referencing influences as varied and as interconnected as Andy Partridge, Roy Wood, Jon Brion, Neil Finn, and anyone else in a pop vein that one might consider with awe and wonder in the face of overwhelming evidence of pure brilliant pop songcraft.

Barbeau's latest slice of pop perfection bears all the marks and dents of being fashioned in a home atmosphere, and yet wears them all with pride and without a hint of apology. A Splendid Tray is actually Barbeau's first recorded-for-release work in four years, as Antology Vol. 1, released earlier this year, was comprised of existing demos that he's stockpiled since 1995's Waterbugs & Beetles.

Barbeau's work on A Splendid Tray is certainly among his best, infinitely more cohesive than the stylistically schizophrenic charm of the sonic resume found on Antology. The Neil Finn references ("Please Sir I've Got a Wooden Leg," "Once in Royal David City") are evenly divided between Split Enz and Crowded House regimes, while "Cockroach City" and "Suicide Toad" both have an acoustic/weird lyric twist that hints at Hunky Dory era Bowie. Barbeau sings with a passion and urgency that recalls Peter Himmelman, a comparison that is reinforced by Barbeau's folkier sound here. He doesn't hesitate to rock out, as on "Yum Yum Bubblegum" and the insistent "Third Eye," the latter produced by Game Theory's Scott Miller.

As on all of Anton Barbeau's previous releases, influences and reference points get flung around in an effort to try to describe the indescribable. Barbeau has the amazing ability to transcend any of these checkpoints, all by being true to his pop heart and making music that is bigger, in sound and character, than the home studio where he creates these little masterpieces. Ground Control to Major Labels: take your protein pill and sign this guy today.


by David Bash

Sigmund Freud would certainly have a field day with the persona that is Anton Barbeau, as both his lyrical and musical themes often are a window to the soul of someone for whom he could have written several chapters. On A Splendid Tray, Barbeau's psyche is quieted a bit... for him, anyway. There are still layers of benevolent bizarreness going through the record, but perhaps not as overtly outrageous as usual as he plays it a bit closer to the vest. Barbeau wears his influences on his sleeve on several of the songs, such as Respect era Robin Hitchcock on the excellent "Creepy Tray," The Plastic Ono band on the dark, stark "The Banana Song," and Tyrannosaurus Rex on a couple of spare acoustic numbers, "Cockroach Song," and "Suicide Toad," but no matter how obvious the gleaning, his warbly vocals and underlying nudge and winks make these songs all his own. Barbeau's gift for irony is also well utilized; pop rockers like "Please Sir, I've Got A Wooden Leg," and the even catchier "Gone" have a bark that's worse than their bite, and the folky "Once In Royal David City" is just the opposite. Though all of the aforementioned songs are good, it's when Barbeau keeps to the basics that he's at his best. The glammy opening track, "Black & White Elvis," takes simple musical ideas and gives them poetry, and on the album's closer, "Yum Yum Bubblegum," his vocal and musical idiosyncracies come together in hook filled splendour.

The phrase "solid effort" might seem anathema to Barbeau, but it fits A Splendid Tray to a capital T.


by Bradley Skaught

Quirky rock masterpiece from Sacramento. Pop legend, brainy lunacy and the spirit of Hitchcock, Cope, Harper etc. Irresistible hooks and flawless production. This is how it's supposed to be. Buy an extra one for the grandkids.


by John Borack

Sheer demented genius...


by Irving Bellemead

I dig this CD. Barbeau seems to be willing to take more risks than your average rocky-singer-songwriter type, and those risks pay off in a CD full of interesting, zippy, stylized pop songs. He's definitely got the "sing like an Englishman" thing going on here and there (he's from Sacramento, CA), but it's not nearly as annoying as it could be. On a couple of tracks, like "Dazzle Girl" and "Once in Royal David City" he even cops the full on Bowie attitude schtick, and it pretty much works. There's also something vaguely Michael Penn-sounding about most of these tunes, although I can't imagine anyone consciously trying to sound like Michael Penn, so it's probably just a coincidence.

Barbeau's lyrics are pretty entertaining, and just the song titles should give you the hintthat these aren't tunes taken from the Singer-Songwriter Clone book: "Creepy Tray", "Cockroach Song", "Please Sir I've Got a Wooden Leg", "Suicide Toad", "YumYum Bubblegum" and so on. There's a playfulness in these songs that I really like, and even when he's getting into potentially sappy territory Barbeau manages to maintain a sense of humour and goofiness that keeps the songs from wearing thin. Crunchy guitars, fuzzy bass and snappy drums help round things out, making for an impressive and memorable batch of pop songs.


by Alan Haber

At first glance, the Anton Barbeau whose mug and skinny frame anchor the cover of A Splendid Tray looks, well, normal. I point this out as a public service because you may not be aware of this man's three previous albums and you may not know that he is usually perceived as being a bit quirky and, besides, he is wearing sunglasses and, the eyes being the window to the soul, you can't see what is on his mind.

Which is just as well, as it turns out. It's all in the grooves, baby, so let the eyes have it: the splendidly eclectic yet somehow normal and wholly wonderful Tray is a keeper of the first order.

Mixing deliciously captivating pop melodies with free-flowing, hallucinogenic-tinged, cleverly conceived lyrics touching on all the usual pop culture signposts--Elvis (Presley), trays, bananas, cockroaches, wooden legs, and bubblegum, among others--Barbeau concocts some of the most inviting musical set pieces around.

Barbeau has really come into his own with Tray. He's also shorn his wild locks, which will please you greatly if dos are your thing and his kind-of floppy mop top pictured on his previous albums, The Horse's Tongue (recorded with his band, the JoyBoys) and Waterbugs & Beetles, made you yell "Get a haircut!" at your stereo.

Follicle growths aside, A.B. 1999 will quite simply blow you away. Not that the earlier incarnations were anything to sneeze at: Tongue featured the sorta self-mocking barn burner, "Another Anton Song," and Waterbugs delivered one of my favorite of Barbeau's songs, the absolutely hypnotic "Allyson 23," and the early XTC-ish "Beautiful Bacon Dream." The kind of Barbeau oozing from A Splendid Tray is all of what came before and then some.

The songs on Tray are, to these ears, more melodic than what has come before; they're also more confidently written and played. What hasn't changed is the uniqueness of Barbeau's compositions. He is all over the place all at once yet never veers off to the side of the road; his pop sensibilities are right on target and he gets you there every time.

Take Tray's centerpiece, "Creepy Tray": Is there a catchier song making the rounds at this very moment? Will you be singing along the first time you spin it? No and yes, in that order. The only problem with the song is it doesn't go on long enough. I wanted more of that delectable, sugary-sweet chorus. The opener, "Black & White Elvis," a tuneful ode to the King, conks you out with a killer hook worthy of the man who, you may remember, left the building, his senses reeling up and down its walls.

What exactly is Barbeau on about in "Third Eye?" Who cares? It's damned catchy, even without a road map for your reference. Also catchy are "Please Sir I've Got a Wooden Leg" and "Dazzle Girl." Hell, so is the closer, "YumYum Bubblegum," which may or may not be about chewy bubbles. A final track, not indexed, begins with a short reprise of "Bubblegum," follows with a spate of silence, and ends with a short, Middle Eastern-flavored instrumental entitled "23" that is pure Barbeau. In other words, quintessentially thus and no more and no less.

Featuring a gaggle of guest stars, including the Loud Family's Scott Miller (who produced "Third Eye"), this Tray is something oh so very special. It marks the true arrival of a powerhouse talent that will continue to make a mark on the pop scene for many years to come. In some ways it is eclectic, and if that is the way you choose to see it, well, that is perfectly normal.


by Peter Damien
(This review was automatically translated from the Portuguese original.)

Power Pop, but without falling in ready formulas

Anton Barbeau fixed itself as one of the icons of American power pop in the early 90's, in way people as Gigolo Aunts, Material Issue, Matthew Sweet and The Posies. If in start of career could to affirm that the sound of Anton would be confortavelmente classified between powerpoppers, from room, Splendid Tray, this already not is so evident, since the musician starts to sophisticate each time plus its noise, with the inclusion of new arrangements and instruments - reflected of new influences that it started to have, especially, according to he himself says, of the psicodelia of the end of years 60, krautrock and even though of little known movement anti-folk.

A Splendid Tray, with certainty is not a record of power pop traditional. Perhaps he would be honest to classify it of neo-psicodélico. The search for a specific definition for the type of sound made for Anton Barbeau discloses a fact that makes the artist to face resistance on the part of the specialized media. Hearing with attention its works, mainly from Splendid Tray, it is arrived the conclusion that it is inclassificável. What she is notable is its capacity to compose on little usual subjects, and when approaches subjects trivial, it makes it under a not conventional point of view.

"Black & White Elvis" are the music that opens the room work of Anton, with a furious rhythm, almost punk. Already "Creepy Tray", second, this yes are well to power pop, with guitars marked and ritmada battery well, as it orders the formula of the sort. But I temper it of Anton is irresistible, with quaint backing vocals before the refrão that seems left some trick in writing sessions.

"The Song Banana" resembles it a hard-rock ballad, with guitar distorted and typical vocal the halfones of Anton well. "Third Eye" has one taken pop well, and the ballad "Cockroach Song", only with violão and the voice of Mr. Barbeau, is particularly emotive, even so in a certain ticket has a vacant souvenir of James Blunt.

Electronic effect (influence of krautrock) mark "Please Sir, I've Got the Wooden Leg", and a certain melancholy bitter taste is notable in "Gone".

If it is difficult to find some point of identification enters first the seven of the 13 that it composes Splendid Tray, the the least in musical terms, the not dumb situation until the end. Another ballad, "Once In Royal David City" has epic course and esparsos keyboards that take the listener to one another dimension. Bacana.

Preferring to bet in the diversity, Anton Barbeau finishes for carrying through a sufficiently pleasant record of if hearing. Penalty that its work has not received still the had recognition, mainly in the native land (United States), since the majority of its fans is of the Old Continent.


by Haiko Herden

Hier haben wir die vierte CD von ANTON BARBEAU bekommen, inzwischen sind aus den Popsongs Rocksongs geworden, ohne daß der Popaspekt verloren gegangen wäre. Die Gitarren sind fetter und dominanter geworden und alle Songs erschließen sich meist schon nach dem ersten Hören, werden aber immer besser, je öfter man die CD abspielen läßt, weil so viele kleine Details eingebaut sind, so daß man immer wieder etwas anderes zu hören bekommt. ANTON BARBEAU übrigens kommt aus Sacramento in Kalifornien (wenn ich richtig liege) und hat schon diverse Auszeichnungen bekommen, wie z.B. den Sacramento´s Sammie Award als Songwriter of the Year und seine CD "Antology Vol. 1" wurde das "Alternative Pop Release Of The Week" bei Audiocafe. Es gibt eine Menge toller Lieder auf "A Splendid Tray zu hören", ich zähle Euch mal "Black And White Elvis" auf, genial ist "Creepy Tray" und der "The Banana Song", bei dem man ein kaltes Großstädter-Synthie-Solo á la Rheingold hören kann. Am schönsten aber ist "Once In Royal David City". Im Internet könnt Ihr mal schauen unter Es lohnt sich.

Since we don't speak German, we ran the above through AltaVista's Babelfish program and came up with the following...

Here we got the fourth CD of ANTON BARBEAU, became in the meantime from the Popsongs Rocksongs, without the Popaspekt would have been lost. The guitars became fatter and more dominanter and all Songs are opened usually already after first hearing, however ever better, the one the CD will more frequently play leave, because so many small details are inserted, so that one gets to hear something else again and again. ANTON BARBEAU by the way comes from Sacramento into California (if I am situated correctly) and already various honors got, e.g. the Sacramento's Sammie Award as Songwriter OF the Year and its CD "Antology of volume of 1" became "alternative the Pop release OF The Week" with audio cafe. There is to hear a quantity of mad songs on "A Splendid Tray," I enumerates you times "Black and White Elvis," ingeniously is "Creepy Tray" and the "The Banana Song," with which one can hear a cold Grossstaedter Synthie solo á la Rhine gold. Most beautifully however "Once is in Royal David town center." In the Internet can you times look under It is worthwhile itself.