You’ve all seen the “Yellow Submarine” movie, right? Well, that’s where Anton Barbeau lives.
You have to admire Barbeau’s work ethic. When he’s not playing shows all over Europe and closer to home in Sacramento, California, he’s holed up in a variety of recording studios with a variety of stimulants, cranking out a variety of albums at a rate which would have made Frank Zappa blush. There’s more about F.Z. later, by the way.
Natural Causes is a distillation of the essence of Barbeau. It combines the quirks, the melodic devices, the musicianship and the whimsy and presents them in the most user-friendly format to date. The casual listener would normally approach an Anton Barbeau album with caution – I mean, where would you start? Wikipedia lists 27 albums, but there’s more than that I’m sure. And then when you choose one, are you going to get synth-based drone rock, power pop or a thinly veiled, Soft Boys tribute? It’s a minefield. Natural Causes would make a great inroad into the strange and beautiful world of Anton Barbeau.
The opening track sets out the stall for the rest of the record. “Magazine Street” is a tidy pop-rock gem, all strummy guitars, airy melody and Andy Metcalfe’s overachieving bass adding details and curlicues in a very pleasing fashion. In a perfect world and on a level playing field, this tune would be lurking at the top end of the Top Ten even as we speak. “It’s the Coffee That Makes the Man Go Mad” throws a bit of Syd Barrett whimsy into the mix but has the decency to be stuffed full of cute melodic hooks. It helps that he’s picked his cohort with care – Robbie McIntosh, Nick Saloman and Ade Shaw from the Bevis Frond, and Michael Urbano all make significant contributions to Natural Causes and give it a sheen of professionalism that some of his early albums lack.
Like the aforementioned Frank Zappa, Barbeau likes to delve into his own back catalogue and revisit songs recorded previously. Natural Causes features a few of these retreads – “Creepy Tray”, “Secretion of the Wafer” and “Magazine Street” have all been given a sparkly 2018 spitshine here and are all the better for it. Why did he do it? I have no idea, just be grateful that he did.
Barbeau walks a fine line between a kind of trainee Paul McCartney and a genial hippy, reading “Alice in Wonderland” while wishing his cheap acoustic guitar was a sitar. He gets the balance exactly right here and tracks like “Down Around the Radio”, “Just Passing By”, and “Summer of Gold” would be standout tracks on anybody’s album. In fact, if “Summer of Gold” had a few more electric guitars and one of those high, squealy, windswept, white Les Paul solos on it, it would be a massive hit for Bon Jovi. Imagine – a sold-out sports stadium, somewhere in middle America with everyone singing along lustily to an Anton Barbeau tune. What a beautiful thing that would be. Especially if everyone was holding up their lighters.
Whether Natural Causes will capture the attention of enough people to push Barbeau up a rung or two on the rickety ladder to (probably posthumous) stardom is a moot point. The annoying thing is that this record is stuffed with good, solid and most importantly, accessible songs and yet it’s hard to imagine anyone outside of his voracious cult following, buying a copy. And would he even want that? Maybe he’s happy being an intercontinental super-busker, traveling the world with a plectrum, a passport, a 12-string guitar and an analogue synthesizer in his luggage. But if he’s ever going to make it onto the cover of Rolling Stone, Natural Causes is his best shot so far.