Led by Liam Finn, New Zealand's indie all-stars team up for an odd and, at times, quite likable pop album.
BARB is a spontaneously-recorded, one-off style record made by a group of friends between their usual bands and pursuits. Like many such projects, BARB the album leaves the impression it was much more fun to make than it is to listen to. That doesn't mean it's a bad album. It's not. In fact, it's a better than average one. But when you go into the studio without any songs and without much to prove, mixed results are the rule rather than the exception. The upside is when BARB clicks, it's quite a bit of fun.
If BARB has a leader, it's Liam Finn, the Kiwi indie-experimentalist. He gained a fair amount of praise for his 2007 solo debut, I'll Be Lightning, and he is certainly well-pedigreed, his father being Split Enz/Crowded House maestro Neil Finn. BARB finds Liam and cohort Eliza-Jane Barnes, with whom he released an EP in 2009, working with Kiwi indie stalwarts Lawrence Arabia, Connan Mockasin, and Seamus Ebbs. If you've heard any of these individuals' music before, you know they share a flair for off-kilter pop that sometimes tries the patience as much as it stretches the imagination, and in that sense, BARB isn't surprising.
The production is of the spur-of-the-moment, do-it-yourself, kitchen sink variety, with everything sounding slightly muffled and/or overdriven. This benefits the rhythm section, on which most of these songs are built, with effects-laden guitars and keyboards sketched on top. Put this together with the high-pitched voices of most all the singers involved and you have something resembling a Mercury Rev/Flaming Lips/Polyphonic Spree sound on opener "Leo", an ode to Mr. DiCaprio himself. Supposedly written from the perspective of a young child, the song captures at least some of the wide-eyed wonder that idea implies, though it could also be taken as tongue-in-cheek. Whatever the case, the gang sounds pleased as ever to be singing and playing it, and you'll be happy to go along.
As long as the tunes hold up and the overindulgence is kept at bay, BARB is a delight. Bass is the attraction on two of the best songs: On "Alcoholic Darling", it bubbles and gurgles around a bit before a shuffle rhythm kicks in, leading up to a chanted chorus. On "Martin XII", it swells and swoops in an ominous, trancelike fashion. It's a bit mysterious, seeping into your senses slowly, compelling you to listen again.
On the stark, piano-led "Time to Contemplate", Liam Finn shows that a gift for subtle, gentle, heartbreaking balladry runs in the family. This being BARB, you have to get through a bit of random rummaging around first, but the tune is worthy of the elder Finn's best McCartneyisms. Only Liam and company add an extra element of psychedelia and alienation, culminating in the cold repetition of the title phrase.
Yes, BARB is a bit odd, but it's also oddly mysterious, even compelling when it's at its best. At these times, the most obvious reference point is 1980s Wire. It's there in the probing, treated guitars and bemused vocal delivery on "Martin XII" and "Counting Sheep", and again in the alternating lilting and trancelike feeling of "Please Don't Interrupt". Finn has claimed that BARB ended up creating some alternate version of soul music, but if that's the case, it's more likely the soul of Syd Barrett than Al Green. There are some nice vocal harmonies from time to time, but "warm" isn't the first or even third adjective that comes to mind when you're listening to this stuff.
Eventually, you get the impression BARB were having too much fun in the studio to bother continuing their streak of writing exceptional songs. The pair of instrumentals are hardly offensive, but are b-side material for sure, and the second half of the album floats by without incident. Fans of Barnes may be disappointed she gets only one lead vocal, but she makes it count, fronting the woozy, whalesong-like "2004".
Really, then, BARB starts out impressively and then winds up turning into something of a paradox -- highly talented, ambitious, dynamic people making slacker rock.