Morgenmusik / Nachtschlager
Think Like A Key (USA) / Gare du Nord (UK)
Prolific Californian multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and guru Anton Barbeau returns with another double album to add to over 30 releases since 1993. Like the previous double Manbird in 2020, the album sprawls between Berlin and California, with songs written in both locations and easily identifiable by their style. Simply everything is here: straight ahead pop, psychedelic folk, cabaret, pastiche, satire and even surreal radio advertisements. You may not get it all, you may not dig everything here, but there is something for everyone, and every track here is superbly written and performed.
Morgenmusik’s opener and lead single Waiting on the Radio is a chiming beam of Californian sunlight, a perfect pop song, inspired by a memory of riding in a green Studebaker with his Mom when he was three years old, radio on and hearing a song he could never identify and has tried to write ever since. Moreover, the guest list on this song alone is astonishing: Colin Moulding of XTC sings harmony and plays a Chamberlin (a vintage keyboard precursor to the Mellotron), Andy Metcalfe (Soft Boys, Three Minute Tease) is on bass, Julian Cope’s producer Donald Ross Skinner plays lead guitar and there’s also Charlie Crabtree on drums, Chris Stamey (dB’s), Rosie Abbott and Allyson Seconds on backing vocals. The album was mastered by Grammy-winning producer Oz Fritz.
This joy in pop continues on Bop, a track that celebrates a certain type of togetherness with a riff that a heavy metal band would do something very different with: which is a key factor in Anton’s success: the ability to write and manipulate any musical genre into his particular worldview. Against these varied sonic backdrops his lyrics find the bizarre, the comical, the cosmic significance in the humdrum and apparently ordinary. So on Mothership Projection he sings about going to Berlin on the train while also singing about a cosmic breast, and mothership projection, which sounds like something Brian Cox would tell us about. Gambit has some more straight forward warnings about city life “Don’t let down your guard, Everyone wants you you’re pretty”, set to a delightful ear worm of a tune. Coming Clean is similarly a little more dark, and warns about the light: “One of those days when the world just hates you”, “you tell yourself your dirty secrets, but are you coming clean”.
As much as the darkness of city life, the album then revels in domestic joys, Dog Goes Zombie simply outlines the joy of a dog, going “zombie” when it sees things no-one else can see – my cats do the same things exactly. The normality of life mixed with the psychedelic beneath it is expressed further in I Demand a Dream – another brilliant chorus, followed by Circustime Train, a more frenetic and open-minded acceptance of the crazy carnival that appears in the narrator’s life.
Nachtschlager – the second album of the double – opens with a bit of electronic, metronomic madness, self-described, Chrono Optik. The following Beautiful Look is a grungy, cool walk into town “biding my time in the magazine section”, waiting for the woman who has given him the eponymous signifier. Dumb Thumping is a stomp, glam rock piece contrasted by Kottbusser Blues – a tour of Berlin station. What did the Operator Say? is particularly great, an opaque lyric, beautiful melody and ornamentation, those little touches on the piano which occasionally ground the song in a Beatles-esque style, immediately displaced by a space-surf guitar solo.
Ding-Dong is as daft as it sounds: there’s a birthday going on – “With candles and everything”: but with a soaring chorus, I could imagine Bowie attempting in the 80s. Pull the Veil Away brings another possible influence to mind: the controlled repetition and harmony of Sparks can be heard here. Like many songs here there is also a touch of the Radiophonic Workshop creeping in from time to time: an Anglophilic influence acquired by osmosis: on KANT FM for instance. Anton has included a reworking of possibly the first song he ever wrote: Come Back: which with added bells and whistles becomes a delightful 60s pastiche: the lyrics rendered sincere by their naivety.
There are a lot of contrasts in the double album: the recording shifts between the open joy of a Californian farm and the thick walls of a Berlin apartment: from nature to concrete, from man-made to organic. It’s a duality rather than a conflict though: as Anton says in his press release:
“I still find myself thinking in those terms of ‘contrast is conflict,’ but in recent years, I’ve been working more with balance and integration. These songs are written in different places, in different styles — but the contrasts here became part of the creative process. I’m just as inspired by music I don’t like (Schlager or generic auto-tune pop) as by the music I love.”
Naturally, the song Nachtschlager itself is murky, droning guitar and tension, not Schlager at all: “dirty young quirky animal bleeding soulful”: a building and menacing wall of sound and superb guitar work.
The songs are creatively structured: bridges in unexpected places, verse/chorus niceties upended, lyrics quite unpredictable and rarely direct. The “obvious” influences are there, XTC, Julian Cope and many others. The closing track Help Yourself to a Biscuit has traces of previous collaborator Scott Miller in the rising and falling main melody line and motor of the song, the voices floating in and out and sampled, if not in the lyric content. That track’s psychedelic flow and drift are the standout track for me, promising at least Hob Nobs if not biscuits of a more psychedelic turn. That shamanic instinct is clearer again on Ganja on the Farm, and in the funny, vaguely sinister and nonsensically worded fake adverts that pop up from time to time throughout this surprisingly complex and enthralling work.
But don’t think Anton takes it too seriously: the penultimate track is Cranking ‘Em Out: possibly a jokey reference to his prolific career: the extensive track listing: the songs that didn’t make it: “another unknown soldier”, as he calls one of them. The songs on Morgenmusik/Nachtschlager are snipers though – directly hitting their targets. The psychedelic, the domestic, the surreal, the ordinary, all viewed through a scintillating and kaleidoscopic prism, by a massively overlooked songwriter who in the surreal world would have had countless pop hits: but not here. It may be time we moved.
Photos used with permission of Julia Boorinakis Harper Barbeau