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Anton Barbeau - Profile

  by Andrew Carver

published: 18 / 5 / 2007

Anton Barbeau - Profile


American pop anglophile has recently had re-released on Pink Hedgehog Records two of his albums, 1995's 'Waterbugs and Beetles' and last year's 'Drug Free'. Andrew Carver examines both of them

Anton Barbeau is one of a legion of American pop anglophiles. The Kinks, the Beatles, XTC and Robyn Hitchcock loom large among his influences. In Barbeau’s case, the favour been returned: He’s recorded with the Bevis Frond and has two albums out on Dorset’s Pink Hedgehog label. The first, ‘Waterbugs and Beetles’ is a re-release of his sophomore CD from 1995. The second, ‘Drug Free’, is his last but one, from 2006. The two albums share definite similarities: Barbeau laid down most of both albums by himself. Nine other musicians came in to lend harmonies, the odd spot of drumming and a few overdubs on 'Waterbugs and Beetles'. On ‘Drug Free’, Barbeau once again handles the lion’s share of the music-making – he’s credited with vocals, guitars, a variety of keyboards, bass drums, harmonica, woodwinds and "bird-calls and nonsense" – and pulls in another large collection of helping hands (18 in all, this time) to fill out the corners. Both albums share Barbeau’s most distinctive feature (and drawback): His singing voice. It’s energetic (some might say manic) and tuneful but has a nasal, tremulous side that may rub some listeners the wrong way. That said, ‘Waterbugs and Beetles’ is definitely the product of reckless youth, ‘Drug Free’ the product of a seasoned veteran. Barbeau seems to feel the same way. Although it’s been lauded as his best work, he’s given ‘Waterbugs and Beetles’ a bit of a trim. The 19-song original is now 16 tracks over 46 minutes. ‘Groovy’, ‘Jelly’, ‘Untitled (But Sad)’ and ‘I Want You Not Around’ all get the chop as being under-recorded or just plain bad; ‘Beautiful Bacon Dream’ also gets a dub version. (For those who worry about such things, the original cover art, a grainy black-and-white photo of a shaggy Barbeau, has been replaced with a photo of a kitten.) Trimmed or not, the album is an eclectic offering, with pop tunes, punchier rockers and acoustic ballads keeping company with throwaway snippets. The album leaps out of the starting gate with breakneck girl ode ‘Allyson 23’, and then slows things down for some musical grumbling on ‘MTV Song’. It then segues into Hitchcock territory with ‘A Proper Cup of Tea’ (goes well with poison, apparently) and the insect-fixated title track, a gentle acoustic number that breaks for a stately but overdriven electric guitar lead part. ‘Beautiful Bacon Dream’ is a clunky and chunky tune based around a climbing riff – it works primarily by splitting ‘Waterbugs and Beetles’ from the other acoustic centrepiece of the album, ‘The Epic Ballad of Sarah and Zoe’. ‘The Epic Ballad’ highlights Barbeau’s anglophiliac streak with references to Heathrow Airport and Morris Minors. ‘Complicated Umbrella Piece’ is a snippet of answering machine message, ‘The Tad Song’ is another oddity – starting as a somewhat conventional ‘boy-loses-girl, tells girl she doesn’t know what she’s missing’ power-pop putdown, it veers crazily into a frenetic blizzard of noise, crashes to a halt then comes back as a hard rock tune. ‘Bible Beater’ is a ruder, poppier tune which contains the line "You shall get to heaven if you rub a little harder." Another oddity ‘Slimy Cello Piece’ is just that (although it doesn’t sound all that slimy, it does appear to feature a cello.) ‘Long John’ is a more experimental tune, with a pair of children discussing a game of hide-and-seek over a crackly loop. ‘Vomit Song’ is a low-fidelity goofball ramshackle strummer that borders on the novelty tune. ‘Come to Me (Made of Metal)’ brings things down to earth, a slow, melodic love song that brings in a crunchier electric sound just past the halfway point. It’s followed by ‘Come (Again)’, a goofier take on the same tune and by the album capper, the dub version of ‘Beautiful Bacon Dream’. Ten years later, Barbeau has knocked out a slew of albums, co-operated with the aforementioned Frond fellows (on ‘King of Mississippi’) and generally refined his craft. Older and wiser definitely suits Barbeau: He’s become a much sharper producer. His singing is also less strenuous. The stacked harmonies and piano that gild the title track of 'Drug Free' make for a superb opener (they sound so nice that he tries it again on the brief ‘Lop It Off'). Added touches like the whistling on the suitably subdued ‘Leave It With Me, I’m Always Gentle’. ‘Just Passing By’ is a full-bodied pop piece with a disconcerting lyrical undertow. ‘Alphalpha Bhang’ once again lays on the multi-tracked vocals for an epic, slightly druggy, tale of children discovering their parents up to no good (although exactly what is a bit unclear). Barbeau gets strumming again for the deceptively bouncy ‘Disco Dress’. ‘Boncentration Bhamps’ begins as a stripped-down acoustic number. Barbeau’s simple, repeated lyrics “I don’t like the sound of the boncentration bhamps ... come away, sailor” are presumably an oblique take on current U.S. affairs with an extended psychedelic bridge. ‘Magic Metal Apron’ flies along on a dreamy chorus ... just don’t ask for the verses to make any sense (they seem to focus mostly on food). ‘She Wears a Green Leaf’ makes about as much sense, with the chorus describing the protagonist’s sartorial habits (leafy, as the title suggests) and the verses being a barmy travelogue. ‘Oh The Malaise’ is an acoustic lament of too easygoing days which drift off suddenly to make way for another repeated acoustic number ‘Circus of the Stars’. ‘In A Boat on the Sea’ takes a leisurely tack, with neat little licks interposed between Barbeau’s ruminatory lyrics. ‘Alphalpha Drone’ ends the album with a blend of backward guitar, surges of Farfisa and studio chatter. Although it is about the same length, give or take a minute, as ‘Waterbugs’, ‘Drug Free’ comes as a far firmer piece of work. The guitars are quieter, but the rhythms move the songs along in a far more determined fashion, and listeners will likely feel themselves more inclined to bop along. The only thing holding it back is a hideous cover portrait of the artist, which resembles a candid snap deemed unfit for the family photo album. Both albums hold treats for pop fans: Some will prefer ‘Waterbugs’ scattershot songraft, quirky melodies and guitar crunch, while others will find the more refined ‘Drug Free’ a more consistent pleasure. Both albums makes a good entry into Barbeau’s catalogue.

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Anton Barbeau - Profile

Anton Barbeau - Profile

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