Reviews: Power Pop!!!
by Jeff Penczak
Anyone who's been following Barbeau's eclectic career can pretty well guess that an album named after a love-it-or-loathe-it jingly-jangly sub-genre may not meet preconceived expectations. With more synths than you can shake a Rickenbacker 12-string at, ABBA-meets-OMD electro-disco, cow-punk and a stomping, glam-dripping tribute to "Julian Cope," you'd be forgiven for thinking he's having us on again and there's no actual "power pop" here at all. Which is kinda the point. Cope's long-time collaborator Donald Ross Skinner is also on board for the title track, which imagines what Ziggy might've delivered if Bowie went techno!
Elbowing his way out of the straight-jacket of "a guitar-based form of self-limiting pop music," Barbeau offers 19 genre-spanning concoctions, including numerous palate-cleansing miniature sound bubbles and a new-wave "Teen Suite." And then there's "The Drugs"! The album even ends with a "Prologue, Literally"! Anti-powerpop is more like it. Bravo!!! (Four stars)
by Aug Stone
If you like Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, and XTC and have not heard Anton Barbeau yet, what are you waiting for? Although American-born and having spent recent years living in Berlin, he’s an ‘English eccentric’ without a passport. With a large, and very often wonderful, back catalogue to boot. His latest offering veers towards his quirkiest, while still delivering some fine pop music. Not ‘power pop’ per se, a genre he defines with a dictionary definition on the back cover as “a guitar-based form of self-limiting pop music created primarily by/for unrequited men who wish the Beatles had never invited Dylan up to their hotel room”. And there is much more humor throughout the album.
The disc opens with the brief and brooding ‘Entre-Vous Dans Les Maisons’, pianos and synths that would be right at home in the 70s though far from the genre ostensibly being dealt with here. Up next comes ‘Power Pop’. Although the title track itself lacks the exclamation points, it is nevertheless full of hooks, like you’d expect, as well as, more obscurely, allusions to food. ‘Crop’ and ‘slop’ obviously rhyming with ‘pop’. The line “out with the old, in with the old again” is notable for the great melodic lift it gives as well as its resonance with the theme. Julian Cope alumnus Donald ‘Donn-Eye’ Ross Skinner lays down some of his signature guitar work, and this won’t be the only time The Arch-Drude comes up on the record, getting his own song at track eleven. ‘Julian Cope’ is a catchy ode to the man himself, whom Barbeau has toured and – as told within the tune – gotten high with. The song gets a bit meta as it is reminiscent of, though more detailed than, Cope’s own ‘Robert Mitchum’. Barbeau’s adoration is apparent and it is perhaps no coincidence then that Power Pop!!! occasionally puts one in mind of Fried.
‘The Never Crying Wolf Boy’ is another poppy highlight, its pre-chorus and middle eight in particular. More mentions of mushrooms, which over the course of his career Barbeau has confessed his fondness for, and there are a couple of times on the record, such as in the middle of ‘The Drugs’ and end of ‘Running On The Edge Of The Knife’, where the song itself starts sounding like it’s tripping. There’s some non-essential stuff on here as well. Six interstitial pieces that range from six seconds to just under a minute. Of these, ‘Slash Zed Zip’ is ultra-poppy while ‘Hillbilly Village’ sounds just like you think it would.
The best songs come at the end – ‘Whisper In The Wind’, ‘Rain, Rain’, and ‘Valerie’s Waiting’ – in what is labelled the ‘Teen Suite’. If it wasn’t pointed out in the liner notes that these are resurrected teenage compositions, one would never know, and only goes to show that Mr. Barbeau has been writing quality songs for a long time now. These updated recordings, while keeping to a lo-fi 80s electronic palette, are lovely all around.
It would not do to let this review end without pointing out the excellent female vocals that enhance a good number of these tunes, courtesy of Rosie Abbot and Julia VBHV. With these and other collaborators, Power Pop!!! sounds like it was fun to make, not so much a party vibe as more of a smaller gathering with good-time medicinal assistance, and the tunes pointed out above should make good gateway drugs to delving into the rest of Anton Barbeau’s oeuvre.
by Lee Zimmerman
Anton Barbeau is a well known pop provocateur, and with an extensive recording resume in that particular genre, it’s only natural that he should title his latest opus Power Pop!!! Given the realms in which he operates, it fits the bill to a tee. What’s more, the premise is adroitly expressed in the definition offered on the back cover: “a guitar-based form of self-limiting pop music, created primarily by/for unrequited men who wish the Beatles had never invited Dylan up to their hotel room.” Hmmm. Regardless of interpretation, this particular Power Pop!!! does take the vintage view it alludes to, incorporating elements of psychedelia, Beatle-esque intrigue, imagination and ingenuity in equal proportions. The song titles of some selections refer to those oblique references — “Power Pop” (of course). “The Drugs” and “Julian Cope” in particular — suggesting a song cycle in terms of actual execution. Eccentricity abounds (the double time “Hillbilly Vintage” being an ideal example), but then again, that’s part of the charm. Speaking of Barbeau, also of note, a reissue of his collaboration with the Loud Family, What If It Works, featuring a plethora of bonus tracks and a booklet featuring an extended interview with the inimitable Mr. Barbeau himself.
LOUDER THAN WAR
by Ian Canty
Album of the Week! Power Pop!!!? Well with the ever-productive and inventive Anton Barbeau in charge, you can count on this title not quite being a literal description of what is contained on this long player. Yes, what is here is certainly pop music for the most part and in places it is pretty powerful too. But Anton’s hyperactive muse sweeps through all sorts of sounds to place it at times a world away from the kind of upbeat rock/pop tunes that might spring to one’s mind when thinking of the term.
Anton’s offbeat standpoint and songwriting abilities are combined here at times with loud guitars and that is indeed something to look forward to and savour, but typically there is a lot of other things going on too. So let us approach this new offering with an open mind and inspect in detail exactly what it has on offer.
A short but perfectly accomplished piano instrumental Entrez-Vous Dans Les Maisons (roughly “enter the houses”) provides the entry point to Power Pop!!! and prefaces the rolling tempo of the title track. More in the line of Anton’s entrancing modern psychedelia than power pop itself, this tune is eminently pleasing and attractive even the song states “bury me in my underwear”.
American Road starts with a baroque pop intro, before a strident electro beat takes over. It’s kind of like a Bruce Springsteen car song turned inside out and with a synth pulse turned on. Then a battering motorik beat drives the very catchy Crying Wolf Baby, with the knotty country hoedown attack of Hillbilly Village following on in short order. It is the first of some efforts here that are practically miniatures, with the smallest of these being mere tantalising fragments that briefly emerge and swiftly disappear.
A psychedelic homage to music rather than words called The Sound follows, with The Byrds, The Beatles, XTC all getting a mention in the lyric. Another short missive Pompadour Toupee comes next, which is a slight voice/vibes thing. The piano leads the ornate but quirky ballad The Drugs and if the rhythmic electronic dance of the moody Free is markedly different it feels just right as a sequel, with Rosie Abbot’s vocals being key to its impact.
Stash Zed Zip is a pleasing short item and akin to the pop hits in the 1980s that employed Hip Hop beats to spice up their melodies. Then a song titled Julian Cope forms a straightforward paean to a true hero and is suitably given a nice meaty guitar line. The comic Revanche Du Genre (Gender Revenge), When I Am Happy and Fretless Bronze (For Matthew) are all short and sweet. Then Running On The Edge Of The Knife is cast like 1980s synthpop, well synthpop that has a closing refrain of “I’m rolling in pig shit, I’m having a good ‘ole time” in a southern drawl that is.
The four song Teen Suite provides the conclusion to Power Pop!!!. Whisper In the Wind is the first of the quartet and an eerie but charming musical landscape is provided for what I consider to be a truly great love song. It is quite brilliant and along with the spritely Rain, Rain set this last phase of the album off on a real flyer, a tour de force of utterly divine pop music. Valerie’s Waiting features a beautifully realised keyboard part and a heartrending pull and it moves through the gears after a slow and touching beginning to become epic. Finally the dreamy synths of Prologue, Literally round off Power Pop!!!. The Teen Suite itself is fantastic and the rest of the LP is full of enjoyable twists and turns and of course great tunes as well.
It seems daft to say it, but Anton is a master at making an album with the songs contained actually feeling like they really belong with each other, rather than just being a bunch of tunes pressed together through necessity. The other players, including Julia VBHB, Karla Kane of The Corner Laughers and Donald Ross Skinner fulfil their roles with aplomb on the LP and all of this is guided by Anton’s natural talents for words and sound. If you’re new to Anton Barbeau, Power Pop!!! offers the perfect to get with the program. An album of rare skill, grace, eccentricity and beauty, Power Pop!!! ticks all the right boxes.
GOD IS IN THE TV
by Loz Etheridge
Anton Barbeau, cousin of US actress Adrienne, has been making music in his own right since the early nineties now. While I haven’t heard everything that he’s ever released, what I have heard is always very palatable, sometimes bordering on "genius," such is his previous effort Oh The Joys We Live For, which received a lot of ‘car time’ from me! One year on, his latest collection Power Pop!!! is another entertaining collection. The title track is like a coming together of David Bowie and The Everly Brothers, perhaps with David Holmes on synths, while other cuts suggest a hint of late sixties psychedelia or, on the surprising "Hillbilly Village," the old kids’ television show Banana Splits. Yes really. But that’s juxtaposed with tunes such as the gripping "The Sound," which is like a journey to an unknown land, and the very brief "Pompadou Toupee," which is like Laurie Anderson produced by Phil Spector. The great thing is how Barbeau consistently evades categorisation, which creates a wonderfully eclectic listen throughout. 8/10
Leave it to ex-pat Barbeau to name an album power pop that sounds the furthest thing from traditional power pop. If you don’t know Barbeau’s stuff he’s been on the scene for decades, creating mostly oddball pop music akin to someone like Robyn Hitchcock, but he’s so talented and sharp he could’ve easily done this record totally straight, but where’s the fun in that? He even puts a definition of power pop on the back of the record, “a guitar based form of self-limiting pop music created primarily by/for unrequited men who wish the Beatles had never invited Dylan to their hotel room.” I know what he means…sometime power pop aficionados can be a bit limited in what constitutes power pop so Barbeau’s broadening it a bit. Anywho, on to the songs “Never Crying Wolf Boy” is a pulsing synth number while “Hillbilly Village” is a short, honky tonk dust up and “The Sound” sounds like a bit like a trippier Modern English. Elsewhere there’s a song called “Julian Cope” while the chorus in “American Road” repeats “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die in a car on an American road” (something that we can all relate to). So as you can see, like on all Barbeau’s albums, he keeps you on your feet and guessing and I get the feeling it’s half homage/half send up to the chosen genre of music. Regardless with Anton Barbeau it’s always going to be interesting and have a good amount of terrific songs. After the regular album ends at song 15 there 4 more which make up the “Teen Suite.” Dig in, if you dare (and dare you must).
HERE COMES THE FLOOD
by Hans Werksman
Psych-pop veteran Anton Barbeau is not a fan of being tied down to a particular genre. If anything, being stuck a particular niche is artistically limiting and it only fans of your music more of the same, basically making the same record all over again. He named his latest Power Pop!!!, a genre that is prone to nitpicking and in-fighting since the late '60s and early '70s. Barbeau does offer the hooks, the melodies and throws the occasional nod to boy-meets-girl storytelling, but he goes out on a limb to show off his impressive palette of influences, whether it is garage rock, New Wave, electro-pop (Free, Running On The Edge Of The Knife) or even Dylan - he goes as far as to mimic his vocals in The Drugs.
Power Pop!!! is filled with twists and turns, offering a cornupia of licks and samples (a very un-power pop thing to do). He is on a roll right now, brimming with ideas and his only fear is that his output will get cut short prematurely. Dying in a car crash would really suck, as he states in American Road, a belated answer to Albert Hammond's I Don't Wanna Die In An Air Disaster.
At this stage of his career, he knows that he can get away with a catchy synth throwaway such as Slash Zed Zip sitting next to a dead serious pledge of allegiance to post-punk legend Julian Cope. Barbeau floats above the genres, sweeping down to cherry-pick the elements that tickle his fancy and create something special and refreshing. And that is the true power of pop.
by Beverly Paterson
According to the definition printed on the back sleeve of Anton Barbeau’s latest album, power pop is “a guitar-based form of self-limiting pop music created primarily by/for unrequited men who wish The Beatles had never invited Dylan up to their hotel room.” And while Anton has certainly fathered a fair share of tunes grounded in the genre, he has always avoided restricting himself to a solitary style. So, therefore, calling the album Power Pop!!! is merely a stroke of the singer, songwriter and multi-faceted instrumentalist’s sardonic wit.
After thirty-plus years of making music and recording an equal amount of discs to match, Anton – who originally comes from Sacramento, California but currently lives in Berlin, Germany – still has plenty of petrol to spare. In fact, Power Pop!!! is possibly the musical mad scientist’s best album to date, as the collection seamlessly reinforces his remarkable shapeshifting techniques for composing and playing strangely addictive songs.
The first cut on the album, “Entrez-Vous Dans Les Maisons,” punches in at just a little over a minute in length and is a piano instrumental featuring an ominous church type timbre. Then there’s “The Sound” that namechecks The Byrds, The Beatles and XTC, and climaxes to a squall of fizzy psychedelic loopings. Fired by a super speedy clip, “Hillbilly Village” blows in as a demented country-salted ditty, and “Free” is a tight and bright trance-inducing hip hop/electro-pop number.
On the vigorous title track of the album, Anton proclaims, “Put down your guns, you culture cops, there ain’t no crime like power pop” and “the kids get high on power pop,” where “Running On The Edge Of The Knife” is an action-packed rocker, smirking with mischief and menace. A tribute to one of Anton’s main inspirations, “Julian Cope” dials in as wiggy pop piece, and the swift and bubbly jitters of “Never Crying Wolf Boy” five-fingers a couple of kicks and tricks from The Cars.
The ghost of Buddy Holly and a lady who doesn’t realize she is a cartoon character are referenced on “The Drugs,” which offers some sweet and gentle piano work and baroque pop orchestration before turning a corner, and letting loose a barking rap admirably emulative of Bob Dylan. On a far more traditional plane, “Whisper In The Wind” and “Rain, Rain” are lovely synth pop sentiments, glowing with hypnotic hooks, feathery harmonies and catchy and insistent rhythms.
Anton’s British-inflected vocals and phrasing – reflecting a melding of John Lennon, David Bowie and of course Julian Cope – are perfectly tailored for the peculiar poetry and inventive sonic operations he so enthusiastically binges on. Cloaked in novel arrangements, off-center melodies and wonky ruffles, Power Pop!!! presents a wealth of interesting and exhilarating moves celebrating various art rock fashions, rather than the tongue-in-cheek moniker of the album. Good for Anton, forever following his muse and unraveling riches in the process.
PURE POP 4 NOW PEOPLE
by Henry Lipput
You never know what to expect from an Anton Barbeau album. And that’s a good thing.
His 2016 album Magic Act included the track “Heavy Psychedelic Toilet” and he has written amazing, dreamy songs for the two albums he produced for Allyson Seconds (the first of these, Bag of Kittens, was reissued by Big Stir in 2020). He has brought on former members of XTC and The Pretenders to play on his albums. And on the album Kenny vs. Thrust he enlisted two very different bands from two very different countries to provide backing for his vocals.
Barbeau’s new album, Power Pop!!! (Big Stir Records), is, due to COVID restriction, mostly a home-grown affair. It resembles his 2018 album Natural Causes in that it has songs and sounds from across the musical spectrum from the pysch-out of “The Sound,” with its lyrical references to The Byrds, The Beatles and XTC and a monster ending not unlike the ending of “It’s All Too Much,” to “Whisper in the Wind” a broken-hearted lament with an 80s drum machine beat and bass line.
The psychedelic also sound raises its head on songs like “The Never Crying Wolf Boy” and the country rave-up of “Hillbilly Village.” The ode to “Drugs” revels in the use of them but in terms of the sounds Barbeau produces it’s not what you might expect because there’s a Macca-esque piano as a foundation and a Dylan-inspired spoken word segment in the middle. The last song on the album before the instrumental "Prologue, Literally," is one of the album’s highlights. “Valerie’s Waiting” has a harpsicord and synth in addition to a wonderful vocal turn from Barbeau.
by John Robinson
Following last year's Oh The Joys We Live For - an unexpected delight - and the brilliant double album Manbird the year before, here's Anton Barbeau's Power Pop!!!, an ecstatic product of lockdown time. The title is sardonic, as Power Pop is a title that has always been foisted on Anton (including, probably, me, to be fair) and he sees it as limiting and facile as a description. The album opens with a short and dramatic bit of synth pop, before the title track: a collaboration with Donald Skinner (bass player with Julian Cope and co-producer of Cope's Jehovahkill) blows us and the genre away - "put down your guns you culture cops, there ain't no crime like power pop", a driving and hooky chorus keeping the groove together.
Similarly, The Sound opens with a withering blast at critics who merely note his influences - "Byrds, Beatles, XTC" - without listening to the actual song, urging us to take a more synaesthetic and psychedelic view. Along with collaborators Rosie Abbott, Julia VBHB, Charlotte Tupman, Karla Kane and Fred Quentin this track in particular is a cool and unsettling piece, probably explained by subsequent song The Drugs, which is an amusing hymn to the essentially harmless consumption the performer engages in: "you bought a chocolate bowl from a woman who didn't know she was a cartoon character"... Memories I can relate to. The album also covers Anton's move back to the US from Berlin, the shock of suddenly having to drive everywhere related in American Road, surrounded by trucks, Trumpists and trailer parks. That song is also in sound a tribute to 80s synth pop and acts such as New Musik, the genre and sound that really seems to have inspired much of the album. Running on the Edge of the Knife in particular is a pitch perfect 80s song, the soundtrack to an 80s crime show that never quite happened (until we meet a loopy yokel at the end, which undercuts it all hilariously).
Three of the songs, the 'Teen Suite' including the lead single track Rain, Rain, are based on compositions from Ant's teen years, and stand up very well. There's clearly a labour of love involved in recreating the sounds and mood of the era. There is a tribute to "natural outlaw" Julian Cope in a song called, well, Julian Cope, about meeting and getting stoned backstage with his hero and playing with him, as well as a short instrumental recorded for much missed bass player Matthew Seligman. Several shorter mostly instrumental tracks pepper the album and give it more flavour, the utterly bonkers Slash Zed Zip my favourite of those, like something Lawrence might have included on Novelty Rock.
While it is less focused than Manbird, Power Pop!!! contains many tracks that are the equal of any on the last two albums and a perfect continuation of Anton's clear genius for hook laden song writing. The group of friends he has recording with him are great as well, sharing his vision and delivering it.
The release date for PowerPop!!! is 25th March, which is shared with Omnivore Records reissue of What If It Works? – Ant's 2006 collaboration with the much-missed indie rock genius Scott Miller – of Game Theory/Loud Family: itself a classic of the-genre-I-dare-not-name which you should get hold of as well.
KNOCK AND KNOWALL
by Eric Sandberg
Him again? Look, folks, I don't know Anton Barbeau. I've never met him or seen a show and he's not paying me. I. Just Love. His. Music. He. Is. A. Genius. Yes, he's a bit weird and he may not be for everybody, but his penchant for melody, his batty, whimsical non sequiturs, paired with a dizzying array of retro keyboard sounds, hits the sweet spot for me. The ironically titled Power Pop is the latest in a series of psychedelic pop masterpieces Barbeau has released over the past several years.
Recorded during lockdown on a farm in central California, with the able assistance of his soon to be wife Julia Boorinakis Harper, the album's nineteen songs comprise a mixture of fully formed songs and brief instrumental/vocal links that create an ever accelerating flow down a Willy Wonka river of butterscotch pudding.
"American Road" relates his small town feeling of claustrophobia during Covid after years of living an urbane life in Berlin. "Hillbilly Village" continues this theme of Barbeau as a fish out of water in his own home town. The Pulsing "Free" has inspired me to hire a bodybuilder to follow me around with a boombox on his shoulder, blaring this song, to announce my arrival.
"Fretless Bronze" is a brief instrumental tribute to Soft Boys/Thomas Dolby/Thompson Twins bassist cum human rights lawyer Matthew Seligman who tragically succumbed to complications from Covid in 2020. "Running On The Edge" starts out as a fist pumping homage to Bon Jovi, or maybe Benny Mardones, before devolving into the greatest lyrical bait and switch since "The Lumberjack Song."
The album closes with three beautiful ballads "Whisper In The Wind," "Rain, Rain" [the first single], and "Valerie's Waiting." Power Pop is book-ended by two lovely instrumental pieces that suggest Barbeau could have had a parallel career making instrumental albums for the Private Music label.
by Bill Kopp
Anton Barbeau is nothing if not prolific. The man churns out album after album at a frenetic pace. But there’s an important quality that sets him apart from others who produce a massive body of work – I’m looking at Robert Pollard and R. Stevie Moore, to name two – and that’s quality. Whereas some artists seem only to record every idea they have and then release it all, leaving it to the discerning listener to, well, discern, Barbeau’s output has the hallmarks of an artist who combs though his material and selects only the really good stuff for release. Happily for his followers, there’s a whole lot of it.
Which some 100 words later, brings us to Power Pop!!! Yes, Barbeau – he who is possessed of finely-tuned senses of humor and irony – has the moxie to embrace that descriptor/epithet. But in a gleefully perverse move, the album’s opening cut (“Entre-Vous Dans Les Maisons”) couldn’t be any father afield from that style. The second song – the title track – is closer to it, featuring a great melody – but it’s far too quirky to qualify. And that’s all to the good-to-great.
Barbeau is remarkably skilled at combining outré sonic and lyrical elements with ear-candy melodies, and Power Pop!!! provides a textbook example of his abilities in that regard. His song titles are sometimes reliable indicators of a tune’s character (you’d expect “The Never Crying Wolf Boy” and “Slash Zed Zip” to be a bit left-of-center, and indeed they are) but not always. “The Drugs” is a slice of baroque pop a la Sgt. Pepper-era McCartney crossed with a bit of Robyn Hitchcock obliqueness.
Topical songs abound. “Julian Cope” is about Barbeau’s fellow cult artist. But “Free” isn’t a song about Simon Kirke et. al. And sonic experiments – a regular feature of Barbeau’s records – feature prominently: three song snippets occupy the middle of the track list. They don’t fit together in any discernible way: one is all of six seconds long, barely enough time to spit out its title – but one suspects their creator knows what they’re about. For us, it’s merely to enjoy, perhaps ponder, and move on to the more fully-realized tracks.
“Running on the Edge of the Knife” is such a tune. It sounds very much like the kind of song one might have heard in the soundtrack to a John Hughes film. “Whisper in the Wind” has an ‘80s feel, too; had Ant decided to make his latest album a thematically retro-focused set, the sessions for Power Pop!!! could have yielded a great deal of the source material.
The run of tracks that bring the album to its conclusion are among the most accessible. That, of course, runs counter to the “rules” of album sequencing. But Anton Barbeau operates outside the framework of any such rules. Thank goodness for that. Standing things on their head is his trademark, or one of ‘em. The album ends with a song called “Prologue, Literally.” Because of course it does. It might have fit on one of his krautrock albums, but it’s lovely here.
Alas, this album is decidedly not what its title advertises. That’s its strength, though: with Anton Barbeau, you never know quite what you’ll get. But you can count on it being compelling, fascinating and worthy of deep listening. And if the title tricks the unsuspecting listener into discovering the wonderful world of Barbeau, then the deception if forgiven. The rewards are many.