Oh the Joys We Live For
(Big Stir Records)
It doesn't seem that long since I reviewed Anton Barbeau's last album, the majestic double album Manbird, and that is because it wasn't very long ago, September actually, on this very site. Manbird is an autobiographical map of Anton's psyche and a record of his travels (literal and metaphorical), which if you haven't yet heard you really should. Early adopters of Manbird also received a bonus album called Oh The Joys We Live For, a set of demos and tracks which Ant had gathered from four different abandoned projects from before, during and after Manbird.
The four projects on Oh The Joys included Christian Wife, which Ant described as "the lives of a conservative married couple in small town America. Each character was meant to have a second life, hidden from their partners. Seemed fun, but I lost focus early on". The songs started to have little relationship to the concept of the album, and it was abandoned. The second project was a new album for Salt, the project formed by Ken Stringfellow during sessions for the final Game Theory album Supercalifragile. The third project Ant described as "a loving spiteful tribute to the always anxious genre known as 'power pop'", and the fourth was a set of electronic re-recordings and new tracks for a synth based album Antronica. These songs included a reworking of Automatic Door, one of his best known songs.
This new release is a finalised set of songs under the title Oh The Joys We Live For with new tracks, recorded under pandemic conditions but not particularly about the pandemic, and featuring guest appearances from the likes of Rosie Abbott, Sharron Kraus, Julia VBH and Bryan Poole (Of Montreal). It's as you would expect from Anton a joyous listen, with labyrinthine lyrical games and in-jokes, endless creativity and dark humour, covering subjects both mundane and esoteric. As such it is not always easy to interpret the songs, and many reviewers have erred: it doesn't help that various contributors to the album share or nearly share names in the songs. It's Alright Rosie, for instance, is about a cat called Rosie and not about Rosie Abbott: there are a large number of contextual clues in the lyrics which make you wonder what sort of person reviewers think Rosie Abbott is who has "kibble cross the kitchen floor, a catnip mouse in every drawer".
It's Anton's "fault", of course, for sometimes using metaphors and then throwing a curveball by being literal. I will probably make mistakes too, so let's just assume that any description of the songs on this album could end with "..of course, it could just be about cats." (Which would be a great t-shirt slogan, by the way, which you could put under basically any tv show or movie logo: Twin Peaks, The Matrix, Lost, Cats.. someone should get it on Etsy right away.)
The album isn't all about the joys of domestic mundanity either, there are dark shadows and sharp corners in the kitchens we visit. The acoustic title and opening track seems to be - and is - a list of the little joys of life, including "Kittens in the barn", "Nipple pierced with ring"... "The devil's idle hands, a green room for the band", but there seems to be more waiting in the tangles of the singer's "mushroom mind". In line with the original concept of the album Christian Wife, there's just a hint of rotten things lurking beneath: "Apples on the ground, too soft to kick around". Gorgeous backing vocals here from Julia VBH, Sharron Kraus and Adam Leslie.
Cowbell Camembert has a great electro feel and 60s guitar sound, with Disco Kittens seemingly annoyed at a Disco Kid's song which "plucks no heartstrings". Presumably it's too cheesy and not genuine enough. There's plenty of actual cowbell by the way, if you're worried. It feels like it was written during Covid, and I see Anton as the disco kid, playing sounds which upset the actual kittens in his living room. Of course, this one is probably nothing to do with cats.
One of her super powers, is a classic slice of jangly power pop celebrating the ordinary wonderfulness of a girl, flaws and all: "One of her superpowers is leaving keys in the car", and this is a song which rhymes "legs a-kimbo" and "Yojimbo", suggesting a pretty fun summer of classic film and Kama Sutra level physicality. She's a guru of power and psychedelic pop, even listening to Julian Cope's Bagged Out Ken from the album Head.
Filmik, which follows, is in Anton's words a "tiny soundtrack to an invisible film": with a portentous brass introduction leading to hip-hop beats and a multi-tracked vocal from Anton's cat Rosie. (I could be wrong there). It reminds me of the instrumentals on The Soft Bulletin, and makes me wish someone gave Anton a film to score.
This works very well as an intro to Crystals, probably the stand out song on the album. It opens with a sound reminiscent of Magnetic Fields circa Holiday, and continues with a truly great slow electro groove and gorgeous multi-tracked vocals. It's about stealing crystals from buildings and shopping malls. There's great fuzzy guitar and a meditative vocal track, delivered calmly as the narrator describes why the theft, and the crystal, is so healing to him.
When Life Brings You Beer is another power-pop guitar based ode to the simple life on the farm, more lovely harmonies from Rosie Abbott and plenty of name checking of both animals and people. "You are here", the song concludes, and it does sound like somewhere you'd want to be, especially if you are a cat.
I Love It When She Does The Dishes has a simple country riff and bass line with a deceptively homely recorder part. The lyric describes household boredom becoming toxic, "When the dinner's done, he sits alone, he's lonely like me." A thunder-like percussive sound which plays throughout gives the track an unsettling edge, and a false stop also unsettles the listener, along with backwards-played guitar and Julia's vocal support. There's a feeling that something has to give, emphasised by the oncoming violence hinted at in the last line.
Three Days the Death Enigma takes its title from the sound of a backwards vocal on another Anton song, Flying Spider from the album Magic Act. The opening line: "You've got to face your demons selfie blogger", is inspired by the "Open University" style lectures of singer-songwriter Momus on his YouTube channel, Anton being impressed by his mastery of the technology and the form. This doesn't mean that - in the next line - it is Momus who "shot his baby dead down by the river", this is a reference to the Neil Young song Down By The River, in which a man murders his lover. The mournful piano and synth sounds outline the tragic, enigmatic tale, which moves to a scene in Berlin and references songwriter Leon Russell before a dramatic ending.
Written for Salt, Die Smiling is electro and synth led, seemingly a song about positivity and karma, viewing mortality as a growth set, "maybe you should just admit you're right this time". There's a lovely slice of innuendo, "fingering, tingling, teasing", and a sax break (by bassist Fred Quentin) that is reminiscent to me of Roxy Music and Andy Mackay. This is followed by another Salt demo, Salt Lick, which I'd like to think is about the aftermath of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Lot wheeling his wife home in a barrow and explaining to his kids that "Daddy kisses Mummy cos Mummy's made of minerals". There's certainly biblical references in there, and Lot also lived in a "mountain cave". Equally, there's reference to going blind after staring at the sun, another example of forbidden "looking", which is what Lot's wife did when she looked back. Great guitar solo and synth licks abound in an absurdly earworm laden track.
I Been Thinking ‘bout You is a guide to Power-Pop, playing with the expectations, cliches and limitations of the genre, and containing innocent sounding filthy lyrics: "I been thinking about you, just another couple minutes and I'll be through", although no filthier or more onanistic than the Everly Brothers All I Have To Do Is Dream. The somewhat creepy guy sat in a van "squeezing milk from an old cup of tea" in the song doesn't sound as alarming as he should do when accompanied by hook laden and shimmering guitar pop, complete with obligatory key change and handclaps in the finale.
Oh The Joys We Live For is a rare treat, an unexpected follow up to Manbird, and a masterclass in infectious melody and delightful storytelling. Anton's back catalogue is a considerable treasure trove to explore as well, and this album continues to demonstrate a knack for power-pop which blends humour, occasional darkness and melancholy in songs bursting with humanity and a love of music. Of course, it could just be about cats.
Main Image, photo by: Julia Boorinakis Harper
Anton Barbeau online