The Irascible Pop Genius of Anton Barbeau’s “Magic Act”

Anton Barbeau
Magic Act
Mystery Lawn Music/You Are The Cosmos

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With his Cali-inflected Bowiesque pop croon, lyrics that crossbreed Andy Partridge’s skewed intelligence with Robyn Hitchcock’s skewed wit, and his petulantly easy-going faculty for shaping pop structures to his every whim, there are a number of things that come as no surprise when it comes to Anton Barbeau. One is the simple fact that the man’s albums, whether with chums and erstwhile Soft Boy Egyptians Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor in Three Minute Tease or dressed in the complicated raiments of his solo career, are unfailingly endowed with an astonishingly seductive, manicured charm, full of a buoyant complexity that nonetheless presents as fully AM accessible. Another is the talent that pulls itself into his orbit – the aforementioned Metcalfe-Morris axis, for instance, present again here alongside appearances by XTC’s Colin Moulding (though curiously not on the Diana Dors cameo’d, shiftingly unabashed “Swindon”), Michael Urbano, Martin Gordon from Sparks, Corner Laughers’ Karla Kane and others, which isn’t to mention previous involvements with Bevis Frond and many likes – that would seem to indicate some measure of implicit magnetism at work. Still another non-surprise is why it can be a bit hard to keep up with one of Barbeau’s albums, never mind the artist himself.

While self-referencing what he does as ‘pre-apocalyptic psychedelic pop,’ a tag I’ll certainly not try to improve upon, splashingly concise as it is, the fact remains that even inside that singular class of genre there’s plenty of room to get deliriously lost and not a little dizzy. On Magic Act (so-named in an autobiographic nod to the magic kit his uncle -a professional magician but of course he was – handed down to his young nephew) we roam like dreaming avatars from the biting though oddly loving off-center satire of “High Noon” wherein Colin’s nimble sneak of bass beds under Jesus incarnating as a human cannonball, his mom in turn getting shot into space and Dracula’s kid comes a cropper, to the twisted domestic diorama of “Milk Churn in the Morning,” as poptastic a track as 2016 is going to see (unless you count the short, pop-Rundgren-goes-Zappa-absurd of “Sit Your Leggy Down” that brought to mind the phrase ‘Tommy James dadaism’ and is still in my head to this day) to the lively foodie lysergia of “Black Lemon Sauce” with its busy popsike glaze and palate-cleansing moment of delicious chaos to – immediately following, reasonably enough – “Heavy Psychedelic Toilet” where conflates our most basic functions with the dreamy transcendence of godheaded space travel (more or less) and where that scene in Trainspotting might well be recast in a golden-hazed, jewel-twinkling glow. All the time the arrangements package up the treats with an almost pitiless efficiency, think Field Music – or XTC for that matter – wrapped in a tasty spangled garage fuzz, drizzled with glistening psych-glam inference, spiked top to bottom with rock’n’roll innuendo. There’s something of the encyclopaedic sound-and-history wizard about Barbeau and he exudes as much joy exploiting it as we get listening to it.

So, one more thing that’s no surprise when it comes to Anton Barbeau? That he’s accumulated volumes of critical acclaim wherever he’s roamed, it trails behind him like comet dust and Magic Act will prove no different. This guy is, truly, some kind of irascible pop genius.