Reviews: Empire of Potential
THE SUNDAY TIMES
by Stewart Lee
Anton Barbeau is one of those cult figures whose vast catalogue intimidates the merely curious. Helpfully, Empire of Potential distils 20 years of lightly lysergic, hook- peppered power- pop into one package of 18 insistent earworms, all hits in a fairer and better world. While fans will spot favourite omissions, such as 2003’s scorching King of Missouri, Barbeau has sequenced a sampler that plays like a proper platter, including his viral Youtube hit "The Automatic Door." File in the buried-treasure bin alongside XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope and the Bevis Frond.
THE BIG TAKEOVER
by Corin Ashley
I stand before you (metaphorically), 100% behind the very concept of a psych-pop wunderkind having a greatest hits compilation despite his complete lack of commercial success. Empire’s tracks, going from 1995 to just this year, show a supersonic dedication to hooky psychedelia in in the tradition of Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope or some of the Paisley pop progenitors of yesteryear. The songs are all top notch, Ant's weedy, tremulous voice is used to great effect throughout, and guests such as Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders, Nick Saloman (Bevis Frond), and the rhythm section of Hitchcock’s Soft Boys certainly do not hurt.
In fact, he also has a brand new band Three Minute Tease with the aforementioned Soft Boys/Egyptians, and he is clearly in a sandbox with children he can play with quite nicely. Video footage of their fantastic hit single on Venus, "Love Is Onion," shows that not only do all three possess fantastic shirts to rival even the sartorial heights of Mr. Hitchcock himself, but also that the songs (recorded at Kimberly Rew’s studio) belong in the good company Anton is keeping. Three thumbs up.
by Marco Rossi
I'm normally a diffident soul, but an Anton Barbeau compilation? Fuck yeah. Empire Of Potential is a devastating rejoinder to anyone sufficiently foolhardy as to underestimate the Sacramento superman's inimitable way with a song. Presented like this, with classic after classic butting up against one another like impatient omnibuses, you realise that while everyone was referencing psych-rock ringers like Barrett, Cope and Hitchcock, Anton was actually writing himself an alternative history in which these songs were proper hits that made real cash money and everything.
Taking the psychy psuperiority of 'Guru 7' and 'Octagon' as read therefore, it's the likes of 'Keep My Face Clean' that beg the question why REM received plaudits while Barbeau languished in notorious obscurity. Meanwhile, the bluff poignancy of 'Leave It With Me I'm Always Gentle', 'Boat Called Home' and 'Heather Song' out-barks The Shins. Buy this in your billions and make him as rich as he bloody should be.
SAN DIEGO READER
by Andrew Hamlin
So, he's recutting almost everything here even though he didn't lose the rights to his songs to himself—just because he can. That's an Ant man for you. Opener "Losing You Makes Crucifixion Easy" has almost every reason you should care: one pip of a Wurlitzer toodle, fervent rhyming in short jabbing rounds, and a delightful sense of being enslaved ("You made me kiss you on the mouth," he finishes, in words, at least, before the universal girl-germ bleeghh!). Anton often comes on like the guy in the corner with his guitar making up songs in between grins at the girls, except that he always snaps off one witty couplet after another. His perversity extends to playing with numbers (see song titles vs. song positions below). But his tricks wouldn't mean much without vibrancy, and for all the giggles, he's quick to that crucifixion with every chorus.
Barbeau's 1000 times catchier than any deathmetalhead, but keep careful track of how often he conflates relief with destruction. "Pilot Plane Passenger" pushes peace through pantheism—given enough dope, he can fly inside his head higher than his jetbound body, can weave nouns together at an azumith ameliorating alliteration. Then it's back to "Boat Called Home," on his knees to the almighty (even if that's "just" a girl), "Do you still hear me?" and "If you say no"—still with the jokes—"I'll know it's time for me to die." And that, finally, is no laughing matter. A gently oscillating masterwork.
by Marc Gourdon
(Translated from the French)
At the end of the first impressive listen of this Empire of Potential by Anton Barbeau—a compilation of a career that started in 1993—it is seriously astonishing that (almost) no one in Europe has ever heard of this American, originally from Sacramento, where his cult status is inversely proportional to his sales figures. Although this self-confessed admirer of Julian Cope, Andy Partridge and Robyn Hitchcock has been settled in Cambridge since over a decade (for the love of the off-centre pop music of the artists aforementioned), and that he records accompanied by old Soft Boys and other Pretenders, it is even more surprising that our British friends have up until now, how shall I put it, avoided him?
It is true that they hardly appreciate an encroachment on their territory and even less so when it is an American who sticks himself with such class! For these '18 Golden And Completely Obscure Hits' make, not without genius, much mischief and an immense savoir-faire, multiple allusions to XTC ("Third Eye"), Julian Cope ("Keep My Face Clean"), Robert Wyatt ("Fuzzchild"), T.Rex ("This Is Why They Call Me Guru 7"), but also Weezer, The Smiths, Dylan and Loudon Wainwright III.
Anton Barbeau shares with them the sense of poetic irony and the gift of striking lyrics, alternating simple ballads and snappy pop songs, polished and promptly produced. Not yet born are this who can resist the contagious glee of the "Heather Song" (1993), "Please Sir I've Got A Wooden Leg" (1999), "The Banana Song" (1999) and also "The Automatic Door" (2007) of which the video is in part the origin of his reputation.
Finally, the great advantage of the late discovery of such an Empire of Potential is that after having digested a first full course, it gives you a craving to go immediately to explore the other dozens of albums that Anton Barbeau has already recorded. A true feast awaits...bon appétit.
by Duncan Fletcher
It's no surprise to learn that comedian Stewart Lee is a fan of Anton Barbeau. Both acts share a left-field approach to their respective crafts, along with a fondness for de-constructing their material until it resembles something with a much deeper resonance than a mere joke/song. A treat then to come across this compilation which stretches back over Barbeau's lengthy and prolific career—a career that has seen him make 13 albums. The fact that none of these have crossed over into the hearts and minds of the mass record buying public is by no means an indication of sub-standard product, it's an irony neatly summed up by Empire Of Potential's subtitle—18 Golden Completely Obscure Hits By Anton Barbeau.
For the most part his songs are offbeat and poppy, with a nicely skewed intelligence. The nearest comparison would be prime-era REM, which could be something to do with the combination of winningly catchy, upbeat tunes combined with obtuse and idiosycratic lyrics. It's hard to resist someone who comes up with song titles such as "Leave It With Me, I'm Always Gentle", "This Is Why They Call Me Guru 7" and "Please Sir I've Got A Wooden Leg". It would be nice to think that in some distant, parallel universe, songs with such quirky titles would trouble the upper reaches of the charts. Barbeau sings with an English-sounding American voice (fitting as he's spent the last 10 years as a resident of Cambridge), its timbre similar to that of Big Star's Alex Chilton.
There are guest appearances throughout from fellow psych-pop adventurers such as The Bevis Frond, Allyson Seconds, long-time collaborator Scott Miller and Soft Boys Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor, who are now also part of Barbeau's current band Three Minute Tease. Their contribution here being a re-recording of "The Banana Song" in which our hero's doctor recommends everyone's favourite yellow fruit as a cure for acne. Yep, it's that kind of album.
PENNY BLACK MUSIC
by Andy Cassidy
I have a confession to make: prior to receiving this album, I had never heard of Anton Barbeau. Apparently, he’s released thirteen albums in eighteen years prior to this collection, and, apparently, he’s something of a cult figure.
This collection, subtitled “18 Golden and completely obscure hits,” came about after a gig in Istanbul where the audience had difficulty in choosing which songs they wanted him to perform.
The collection opens with the wonderfully titled 'Losing You Makes Crucifixion Easy', a bright and breezy song in the vein of Out of Time era REM. Musically Barbeau’s backing band are wonderfully tight, and his vocals are easy and assured.
'Keep My Face Clean' and 'Fuzzchild' are a couple of great “grown up” pop songs, charmingly whimsical and eccentric. Musically, I’m reminded of Aztec Camera or the Waterboys, and lyrics about “an octopus’s jungle” and “spiky hedgehogs” place the lyrics firmly in Syd Barrett or Andy Partridge territory.
There is a great deal of joy in this collection, and I cannot believe that I have never heard of this guy! 'Automatic Door' is a cracking, chirpy little rocker while 'Octagon' (which is a collaboration between Barbeau and the Bevis Frond) is pure American indie. The more I listen to this collection, the more I find similarities between Barbeau and bands I love; Pugwash, REM, the Wonder Stuff, Picture House—the list is endless.
This is, without question, one of the best albums I have heard this year. My only regret is that I haven’t discovered Anton Barbeau before now. Sadly, this discovery is going to prove expensive for me, as I suspect it will lead to the purchase of his back catalogue!
Empire of Potential is a fantastic collection of great songs by a true innovator. If, like me, you have never heard of Anton Barbeau, it is a perfect place to start. This is an excellent album—simple as that.
GREEN MAN MUSIC
by Green Man
Anton Barbeau had always been just on the edge of my musical radar until last year's Psychedelic Mynde of Moses introduced me properly to his wonderfully offbeat world. Also being aware that this was just the most recent location on a creative path that stretched back nearly two decades what I needed was a musical map that would allow me to explore his extensive back catalogue. What's that you say? An eighteen-track retrospective of re-mastered and occasionally re-recorded highlights of his career to date? Don't mind if I do.
Empire of Potential, self-deprecatingly, but probably accurately, subtitled 18 Golden and Completely Obscure Hits by Anton Barbeau is a great overview of the man's work. An Odyssey that meanders from the blatantly Pretenders-esque Losing You Makes Crucifixion Easy with Sacramento's young Turks, The Joy Boys to his current incarnation as Three Minute Tease, featuring Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe who as members of The Soft Boys had such an influence on Barbeau's fledgling career.
In between these musical bookends is a collection of songs that marry surreal lyrics with quirky yet accessible pop music (Automatic Door), the occasional, more reflective acoustic number (Waterbugs and Beetles) and some full on psychedelic, freak out garage rock (Banana Song).
The artists that he manages to draw into his strange, acid soaked, day-glo soundscape is also quiet telling. Any album that is helped on its way by Nick " The Bevis Frond" Saloman, Scott Miller of The Loud Family, members of Cake and even new folkies on the block, Stornaway, is really asking be noticed.
Despite its slightly dismissive subtitle, this really is an album of classic, if slightly deranged, pop songs, the fact that they aren't better known has little bearing on the body of work but speaks volumes regarding the complacency of today's average music consumer and the cash cow requirements of the modern music industry.
Fuzzbox is a brilliant psyched-out homage to the Summer of Love, Octagon delves into the heart of Byrds territory and Third Eye wouldn't sound out of place on an XTC album. And all through the album intriguing reference points seem to float just out of earshot from Julian Cope to The Beatles, from Pink Floyd to Robyn Hitchcock, ever present but never so obvious that they undermine the originality of what Anton Barbeau has created here.
If pop music has become a bit of a dirty word these days, this album will hopefully remind you of what pop music could have been, can be and hopefully will be again. An Empire of Potential? Absolutely.
by Jeff Penczak
Barbeau's complicated (and voluminous) back catalogue runs about 18 releases deep with numerous reissues, "Antologies", and limited editions tossed in to confuse even the staunchest supporter. In order to appease the fans looking to pick up the early releases at his gigs (and lighten the load he has to haul around the world), he assembled this 18-track, career-spanning compilation which offers selections from each of his previous albums along with a few remakes and one exclusive track to keep the completists satisfied. I would have preferred that he sequenced the tracks chronologically so one could trace his musical trajectory and development from Sacramento (CA) popster to mad psychedelic scientist, but there's no denying the charm, breadth, and variety that Ant delivers across these 70 minutes.
Opening with a remake of 'Losing You Makes Crucifixion Easy' featuring The Pretenders' guitarist Robbie McIntosh (a dream come true, as Ant confesses the original was a deliberate attempt to rip off 'Back On The Chain Gang'), all of the selections showcase his gift for marrying a catchy melody to literate and often quite hilarious, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. 'Third Eye' effectively welds XTC to Robyn Hitchcock (not surprising, since Barbeau's current project, Three Minute Tease is a trio of Ant alongside former Soft Boys/Egyptians Andy Metcalf and Morris Windsor); 'The Automatic Door' reveals his political, anti-fundamentalist side, while his romantic, sensitive side shines through the sentimental 'Heather Song' from his 1993 debut.
Barbeau's little black book is chock full of some of the indie scene's brightest lights, and besides McIntosh, Windsor, and Metcalf, he has included tracks featuring Scott Miller (Game Theory/The Loud Family), Nick Saloman (The Bevis Frond), members of Cake, and Oxford folkies Stornoway. His record collection has inspired successful tips of the dome to some of his biggest influences, from Big Star (the melancholic acoustic ballad 'Waterbugs & Beetles') to Julian Cope (the psychedelic lunacy of 'Mahjong Dijon') and Marc Bolan (the headscratching pop ditty 'This Is Why They Call Me Guru 7'). The "high" quality is consistent throughout—enough to warrant a serious reevaluation of Ant's entire back catalogue. In the meantime, this is an excellent introduction to one of our finest, albeit criminally obscure artists.
Consummate popster, eccentric and craftsman Anton Barbeau is back with Empire of Potential: 18 Golden and Completely Obscure Hits. 18 cuts spanning 18 years from Barbeau’s 13 platter catalog make up Empire with appearances from long-time collaborator Scott Miller, Andy Metcalfe, members of Cake, Morris Windsor, and Robbie McIntosh among others.
I started scratching deeper after last year’s fantastic Psychedelic Mynde of Moses (represented here with "Fuzzchild"), and Empire makes at least one thing very clear: got to keep scratching. Drawing from the same well as luminaries from The Beatles to XTC to Syd to The Bevis Frond (co-piloting on Empire with "Octagon"), Barbeau is in many ways a traditionalist. Just as the names dropped above pushed their take on tradition making it their own, so does Barbeau. There’s no mistaking Barbeau and his savvy and skewed irresistible take on life on Earth. Kicking off with the admitted Pretenders’ rip-off "Losing You Makes Crucifixion Easy," updated here with Robbie McIntosh, Empire covers as much ground as Barbeau himself. Comfortable and confident across many sounds and approaches, Barbeau offers up nuggets spanning his tenure, some retooled for the modern age; teen Barbeau raises his precocious head with a freshly minted take on "Pilot Plane Passenger." "The Banana Song" gets updated here with Metcalfe and Windsor, who make up Barbeau’s new band, Three Minute Tease.
Offbeat, left-field, oddball, outsider…buy a Thesaurus…One thing Barbeau is most definitely is on target. Poke around and you’ll invariably come across the words genius, unique, gifted, brilliant…if that’s where you like your arrows shot from, then you can’t go wrong.
Nope I had never heard of him either (well until a month or two ago) but Anton Barbeau is a prolific artist with a small but influential coterie of admirers. From his CV (started in Soft Boys covers band, moved to Cambridge for the vibe, namechecks from Julian Cope and Stuart Lee) you'd expect him to be peddling straight out of Itchycoo Park English psych, but Barbeau never quite ditches his American (he's from Sacramento) roots. There's plenty of Beatley pop here, albeit with a Californian hue, but also a whiff of the odder wing of grunge (Blind Melon, Jellyfish etc) as well as recent bands like the Dilletantes and Morning After Girls.
This compilation rounds up the best of nearly twenty years of music from his garage days in California through to hanging out with eccentric English troubadours and most of it is really rather good.
The tracks that hit home fastest are "Fuzzchild," a quality chunk of English psych with an unusual extended droney chorus and "Losing You Makes Crucifixion Easy," a jaunty acoustic strum apparently inspired by The Pretenders.
Barbeau also seems to benefit from a good partner as other highlights include a gorgeous duet of sorts with Allyson Seconds on "If I Could Bring You Trouble" and a thrashy rocker "Octagon" from the rather good album King of Missouri which Anton made in the mid noughties with Bevis Frond.
Also on board is the brilliantly titled "This Is Why They Call Me Guru 7" from what many of his devotees consider his best work, 2006's In The Village Of The Apple Sun.
Anyone who likes the quirkier side of psych will find plenty to revel in here. As an intro to a very under-rated musician this is bang on.
by Will Stone
The idea of an "obscure hit" is an oxymoron in itself, but considering that Anton Barbeau has frequently been dubbed a cult hero it may be an appropriate term to describe his music.
This 18-track retrospective of 18 years of Barbeau's work explores his many different styles.
There's the nasal and infectious melodies of his Sacramento pop roots to more psychedelic forays with Julian Cope, showcasing Barbeau's undoubted songwriting gifts.
As an introduction it's perfect but some of the tracks have been reworked, presumably as an attempt to at least keep the most diehard fanatics interested.
The Banana Song was re-recorded in Berlin with Soft Boys bassist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor.
And former Pretenders member Robbie McIntosh plays electric guitar on a new version of opener Losing You Makes Crucifixion Easy.
A well-intentioned cash-in.
Click here to open the player in a new window