Album review: Anton Barbeau – Berliner Grotesk

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Words by Gareth Thompson

A native son of California, it’s arguably his European influences that have shaped Anton Barbeau’s music the most. Steeped in psych-rock and underground club-tronica, his work blends an unerring ear for melody with a zany eye for poetry. Maybe his finest hour came in 2018 on Natural Causes, a record that sounded like some lost meeting between Kevin Ayers and John Lennon. It really was that good: a love bomb of tunes that fairly mushroomed in your mind. Now comes Berliner Grotesk, imagined as part of a trilogy including Magic Act (from 2016) and Natural Causes.

Each hypnotic hoot of Barbeau’s voice remains full of laughter and surprise. But anyone hoping for a sunsplashed repeat of the previous album should look away now. Think of Berliner Grotesk as more like returning to the scene of a summer romance. It’s a case of looking for new experiences in the same place, rather than dwelling on the past. And the great conjuror certainly has some fresh tricks in his hat to amuse us. The title track’s junky cabaret is akin to The Tiger Lillies or Agnes Bernelle and offers a thrillingly dark waltz. In a flash, the master of ceremonies is having a butcher’s around London, as ‘I Been To Bromley’ gets bluesy with alehouse piano. A brief cover of ‘Love Me Do’ feels choppy and rootsy, reminding us what a groovy kinda polka the original was.

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Photo by Julia Boorinakis Harper

Maybe only Barbeau could pen an ode to some leg-humping canine and pull it off movingly. ‘You might be god in a backwards way/But you’re a little too forward with my leg today’ he croons on ‘Down Weird Dog’. The electro-shuffle of ‘The Gruff Exterminator’ slyly gets you singing to stanzas born from fetish and melodrama, where the lead character has ‘a velvet eyepatch and a thrice-broken nose’. We’re in the archly camp worlds of Marc Almond or Neil Hannon here, but then come two tracks that highlight the great paradox that is Anton Barbeau.

Few others blessed with this man’s melodic gift would shackle their commercial odds so wilfully. Instead of layering his dulcet tunes over bankable lyrics, he revels in doing the opposite. Even to the point of teasing. ‘Baby Can You?’ opens with the winning lines, ‘Baby can you show me/How to know myself like you know me?’ The stage is set for a chart-topping weepie, but Barbeau subverts this into an ode about homegrown stuff and inner questing. More dreamlike balladry on ‘Horns’ then morphs into something quite sorcerous. Maybe this is why we must revere Barbeau – he’ll always belong to us and not to ‘them’.

Elsewhere there’s the zany serenade of ‘Not The World’s Most Wave-Formed Man’, a sweeping parable in ‘Disaster On Sandwich Island’ and euphoric radio-rock on ‘don’tforgettogetyourfingerwet’. The twilit closer ‘Boxcat Blues’ is a twinkling elegy with  jumbles of Pythonesque and Dantean imagery.

Subversive as ever, Barbeau offers another shot of haywire genius on Berliner Grotesk. Only a total tomfool would resist this madcap’s embrace.

Berliner Grotesk will be released on the 10th of May. Order it here.

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