Upon encountering the title of Anton Barbeau’s latest album, it’s fair to wonder: Is Stranger used here as a noun or an adjective? If it’s the former, the title could be a tacit acknowledgment that Barbeau is an outsider artist, operating largely apart from the machinery of what we used to call the “record industry.” His outsider status brings with it a freedom to follow his muse wherever it might lead; he can operate without some A&R rep telling him (for instance) that they need more music in a particular style so as to shift more units.
Or maybe Stranger is an adjective. After all, there’s something decidedly (and wonderfully) strange about Barbeau’s approach to music. He can and does create powerpop, krautrock, synthpop, baroque pop, experimental and/or what-have-you, sometimes all on the same album. From a mainstream perspective, that’s a bit… strange. And who knows? Maybe this latest collection is even stranger.
Well, not really. Barbeau’s creative musical perspective has always been rooted in melody, so even when the instrumentation and/or lyrical content is a bit off the well-trod path, it’s accessible. So on tunes like the title track (in which stranger is, as we discover, a noun), a synth/kraut beat provides the foundation for a subtle, understated pop ballad.
“Ant Lion” is more analog synthetic goodness, with Vocoder for extra appeal. The DIY aesthetic is to the fore here, with Ant joined only by Rosie Abbott (on backing vocals, I’m guessing). Some manic and splashy (sampled/looped?) drums propel “Dollis Hill Butcher,” one of the rocking-est cuts on Stranger. The song’s brief, whacked-out guitar solo is a treat.
“Stone of Fire” is heartfelt balladry, Ant-style. That means that we can’t be quite sure what it’s about, but that oblique quality doesn’t detract from the song’s appeal. The gospelish vocal arrangement is as unexpected as it is welcome; same is true for the ethereal sax lines. “Sugarcube City” is idiosyncratic, a kind of Bowie pastiche filtered through Barbeau’s singular sensibility.
Few artists are as adept at combining the “bedsit creative” aesthetic with psychedelia and electropop textures as Anton Barbeau. And his skill at synthesizing those disparate characteristics into individual songs is highlighted throughout Stranger. The whole thing holds together, too.
Abbot resurfaces throughout the record; she’s so prominent, in fact, that listeners might be tempted to think of her as a featured artist. But Stranger is clearly Barbeau’s show; guest vocals are – in a sense – sonic choices akin to using one or another guitar on a given song. And Barbeau’s choices are consistently inspired.
It’s sometimes challenging to assimilate the work of Anton Barbeau. He’s not R. Stevie Moore or Bob Pollard, churning out a new album every five minutes; his level of quality control is too finely-tuned for that. But he is prolific nonetheless. By the time you hear one, the next is surely near completion. So it’s possible to get overwhelmed. But don’t let that happen: the songs (and song snippets that clock in under a minute) that populate Stranger are well worth taking the time to enjoy.