Released 18th September 2020
New double album by Anton Barbeau, an autobiographical double set which begins with his early days in Sacramento and then sets forth to find a new place in the world to call home, with flight being the key. Ian Canty stayed put, but found himself travelling the cosmos in his mind…
One-man hive of industry Anton Barbeau, 30 albums into a recording career that began way back in 1984, goes right back to his roots on this latest double album Manbird. Following not long after previous record Kenny Vs Thrust (reviewed here), this new set traces his story from 1980s Sacramento to present day Berlin, with a pronounced ornithological/aviation bent. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some kind of rush job though, as the amount of reflection, imagination and creativity that has gone into this wouldn’t flatter a record a long time in the making. Manbird is the kind of album that draws the unsuspecting listener straight into the story from the off, no matter how strange the scenery may get along the way.
Here Anton deftly balances the twin themes of the album and pulls out their similarities. The age-old need to get away from the stuffy confines of one’s hometown is really just wanting to leave the nest and the impetus to discover a place to make your own. The inevitable pull of the familiar is played off against the urge to build a future (or a nest) for oneself in new and exciting environments. He employs a wide array of musical styles on this record, using them adeptly to help demonstrate the passage of time, changes of circumstance and his adventures and discoveries as he steps out into a bright and shiny world.
This album begins with the stirring new wave pop of the title track, which has some neat fuzz effects and hummed intro. The perfect starter to draw you into the universe of Manbird, tying in the central conceits with a cracking pop tune. Across The Drama Pond follows and goes right back to Barbeau’s days as “one of the new wave boys” and his development from there on, a sparky near-hip hop electro rhythm set against cutting guitar noise and a light synth melody. From there, Memory Tone glides in, classic songwriting really, delicately but simply put together and cool, a real sparkler of a tune. Fear Of Flying kicks off with an airport announcement before settling into an acoustic strum, with a lovely bass drive by Larry Tang and a rhythm that gives way to a fresh rush of a chorus. The song is self-explanatory from the title, but digs into the kind of paranoia that can overtake the calmest of heads during air travel.
Then comes the uptight chant of Savage Beak and Chicken, which seems like a sequel to Fear Of Flying, a prime example of the kind of finely judged folk psych pop Barbeau does so well. He even utilises a little hardcore punk thrash on Featherweight. This is followed by his first ever composition, Cowboy John Meets Greensleeves, which he wrote when a mere 8 years old! Beak, which has a prime Neu!-like motorik pulse is next, with the following Nest Out Of Feathers in really more in classic AB style. This disc finishes with the eerie acoustic reflection of Oh Dainty Beak plus And So The Crow Flies, whose (sadly quite brief) running time and galloping guitar pop thrills made me itching to find out about the contents of the second platter.
Coming Home opens up disc two of Manbird. The first verse masterfully sums up the feeling of the mixture of strangeness and familiarity that accompanies the return to somewhere you once regarded home, with the tune a multi-faceted gem. Spikey guitar heralds Don’t Knock The Mockingbird and is that a harpsichord throwing dancing shapes on Flying On The Ground Is Alright? Both songs are ace modern psychedelia anyway. I was a bit thrown by the intro to My Other Life, to me it sounded really like Ultravox, before settling into a sparse strum and voice meditation, like Syd Barrett meets John Foxx I suppose. Underneath The Mushroom Tree is another one that cuts down the musical landscape with only singing and keys and Auslanderbeak is brief and busy, a little like “early” music in its courtly style.
Dreamscape 4 comes on low-key and space-sounding, almost keying in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s work as a reference. The looped voice beat to Even The Swans Are Dirty manages to give it a dance groove and as such works up quite a head of steam. There’s a reprise of Beak and then we’re into the delightfully warm pop of Birds Of North America. Back To The Egg’s ringing guitar and organ again alludes to a return home, or to somewhere once called home and the title track is reprised as Manbird (Oxford Variation). The mournful whistle of Space Force makes the logic leap from terrestrial flight to outer space travel in a humorous and clever manner with drones and blips, until a flowing guitar pop rhythm bursts through.
Manbird ends with a couple of short, unnamed instrumental tracks, which act as the ideal come-down from the full-on wizardry that has gone before. The first, track twenty six if you like, hinges around a drum tattoo that gradually rises above some quirky keyboard work. The final piece has wordless voices and whistles and brings the curtain down in a downbeat and reflective fashion, letting the listener take stock of that which has gone before.
This is a record that will no doubt please Anton Barbeau’s growing fanbase, as he and his band of musicians are on fine form here. The LP is full of the wit, sparkling psychedelic tunesmithery and just really good and interesting songs told from his own unique standpoint. This is something that more seasoned observers have come to expect from him. But also interested newcomers will find Manbird very accessible and highly listenable. The beauty of his work is that you don’t quite know which direction Anton will go next (I wonder if he does?). But that is just part of what makes him and Manbird so appealing. The sheer invention, wit and attention to detail in the storytelling is compelling and the music is also deliciously deft, ingenious and infectious. Let a little Manbird in your life and you will be ready to spread your wings into the rest of Anton’s ever-growing oeuvre.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here