Impatient With the Process
267 · 9 March 00
Anton Barbeau: A Splendid Tray
I know the exact moment when I changed my mind about Anton Barbeau. I don't know it on a Gregorian calendar, but that isn't where most of the interesting things are recorded, anyway. I know it on the scattered timeline that skitters, mosaically, across the surfaces of records. Calendars and clocks are necessary for history, but history and I rarely need each other. Calendar time is inexorable and irretrievable, and life is rarely either. Moments attached to songs can be replayed, reconceived and related. I find that events that happen while music is playing store themselves, while events that happen in silence can only be catalogued with tremendous effort. What was the date of my first real kiss? I don't know offhand, and although I could probably narrow it down to within a week, with a little thought, no date will ever evoke it like the song I chose as that relationship's anthem. It's on an LP I've refused to replace with a CD, because the crackle of the worn vinyl surface is part of the memory. My LPs are five or six feet from my right hand, as I type, and my turntable is beside them; traveling through time requires such small movements. The song is Heart's "Allies", from the album Passionworks, written for them by Journey keyboard player Jonathan Cain. At the time it seemed indescribably profound and eloquent, to me, and now it sounds saccharine, musically overblown and lyrically unsophisticated, all of which matches my understanding of the affair, then and now, perfectly. And so that moment in my life is preserved.
Changing my mind about Anton Barbeau isn't a milestone on par with an awkward, electrifying kiss, of course, but there aren't very many first kisses, and I've got to fill the rest of my head with something. So: I changed my mind about Anton Barbeau during the four seconds from 1:02 to 1:06 in "Dazzle Girl", the eighth track on his fourth album, A Splendid Tray. I have the other three albums, too, and they each have some things I like, but there are fourteen songs on Anton's 1993 debut, The Horse's Tongue, nineteen more on 1995's Waterbugs & Beetles, and another seventeen, many from the same era, on the 1999 demo collection Antology Vol. 1, and to me that amounts to a stern cautionary tale about the importance of editing. Just past the minute mark in "Dazzle Girl", however, the song reaches its second chorus, and something starts making mewing Mellotron-ish noises, and Anton asks if we've seen his dazzle girl in a voice that makes me think the phrase actually means something. Those particular four seconds only really conjure up the shimmery spirals of the Three O'Clock's "Jetfighter", for me, but that one association jars loose a cascade of other ones, and before I can react I discover that I've begun thinking of this album as a cross between Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and ELO's Out of the Blue (which, unless I'm doing the algebra wrong, would be Out of the Blue Sea and Into the Aeroplane Over It, by the Electrically Neutral Light Milk Hotel Orchestra), or as a simultaneous demonstration of what XTC and the Loud Family might sound like if they weren't a little afraid of perfect pop songs, or what the Beatles might have done if they'd survived to reunite and answer all the rhetorical questions posed by all the bands that came after them.
A Splendid Tray isn't especially succinct, by pop standards, but the first ten songs skip by in about thirty-five minutes, and even with the somewhat splayed ending the whole thing easily finishes up before an hour. And at almost no point during that time do I shake the conviction that any differences between this record and the Platonic ideal of Pop are inadvertent. "Black & White Elvis" opens with tinny guitar and a quiet profession of sincere, if puzzling, faith, but then surges into waves of guitar distortion, pirouetting background vocals and unapologetically anachronistic synthesizer whooshes. The hooks in "Creepy Tray" are as ebullient as the ones in "Manic Monday" or "Walking on Sunshine", but Anton's singing is nasal and weirdly doubled, and the backing vocalists are momentarily possessed by the idea that they're ABBA. "The Banana Song" is alternately martial and fragile, like Anton is trying to reproduce the Loud Family's "Top-Dollar Survivalist Hardware" but for some reason is mis-remembering it as containing fragments of "American Pie" and a synth solo from one of those long Rush instrumentals. Scott Miller actually produced the cartwheeling "Third Eye", and maybe Scott and Anton's penchants for pop evasiveness don't quite cancel each other out, but I think it's Anton's most focused pop song since "Octagon", and perhaps the most direct thing Scott's touched since "Sword Swallower". "Cockroach Song", just Anton's voice and acoustic guitar, is about two thirds Jeff Mangum and a third Robyn Hitchcock. "Please Sir I've Got a Wooden Leg" is shot through with oblique, sawing synths, like Devo and Faith No More's secret combined Rush/Fleetwood Mac tribute band. "Gone" is spare and churning, but swoops into its choruses like Mecca Normal channeling Jesus Jones. "Dazzle Girl" is kaleidoscopic and monumental, a space-opera love-song that combines "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "Pinball Wizard", Too Much Joy's "Crush Story" and XTC's "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead". The slow waltz "Once in Royal David City" might be the most Loud Family-like in structure, but lumberingly strummed guitars pull it in one direction, and a paranoid narrative peopled largely by predatory weasels pulls it in the other. "Suicide Toad" sighs like "Candle in the Wind" rewritten by a partially botched golem of Jules Shear.
And if the album stopped there, it would have been admirably self-contained, but I wouldn't have been sure of its ambition, and so probably would have had a different feeling about the magnitude of its pop triumph. I need the final chapter, which begins with the sprawling, reverent "Sweetness Dream of Me", equal parts folk dirge and rock spectacle. The fade-out at the end takes nearly a minute, and the beginning of the next song is a forty-second false start, so by the time "YumYum Bubblegum"'s brash pop strut finally arrives it feels to me like we've stepped outside the album, proper, and we're now seeing the exposed machinery of Barbeau's pop apparatus. The nonsense chorus, solemnly intoned, seems like a meta-point about how pop songs are constructed, or how they fall apart, like theme music for industrial accidents at Willy Wonka's. There's a brief reprise of "YumYum Bubblegum", and then one of those so-Twentieth-Century long silences, and then one more snippet, a miniature backwards-spaghetti-western flourish that expires before it amounts to much. A real pop album, pop by instinct instead of calculation, would have ended with a snap, with a quick bow, skinny ties flicking the toes of shiny shoes. This one kind of unravels.
But then, real pop albums are also often inane, and while I can tolerate a fair amount of inanity, I don't cultivate it, and don't miss it when it doesn't show up. Once I've been converted to suspecting that Anton has a pop masterpiece in him after all, and am no longer completely certain that this isn't it, I start seeing strange figures, out of the corners of my eyes, lurking in the ostensibly random lyrics. Every time I whip my head around, they're gone, but I don't think I'm imagining them. There's something about the pelvic fracture and suggestive entreaty to the Virgin Mary in "Black & White Elvis" that I have a feeling amounts to an explanation of the essential Bacchanalian/Dionysian tension that differentiates pop from rock. I think the hunchback's comely daughter at the end of "Creepy Tray" means the whole thing is somehow a love-song. "The Banana Song" is evasively plaintive, and I'm still not sure whether he's asking for a banana sarcastically, because it's the way you'd reward a monkey, or sincerely, for the same reason. I don't know what the third eye means, in "Third Eye", but I'm enthralled by the line in the middle where he says "Lady, your elbow goes here", a tiny shard of romantic-compatibility truth sparkling in the murk. "Third Eye" also introduces the character of the Prince of Chairs, who reappears in "Cockroach Song", and a long line of tragically- (and metaphorically-) immobilized romantics are deftly implicated. "Gone" laments a past era "Before I started needing haircare", and I don't know whether he means Rogaine or No More Tears. "Once in Royal David City" conflates Never Never Land, Wonderland and Oz. "Suicide Toad" is a straightforward cryptic farewell until the last verse jabs "But other toads in other towns / Who heard the news would not come down / From bridges nor from buildings for the pain", and now I wish I knew whom he thinks they're refusing to mourn. The intricate internal rhymes in "Sweetness Dream of Me" disguise a disarmingly transparent love song, and after hearing it six or eight times it finally occurs to me that "dream of me...alone" means "dream of me, and be alone", as well as "dream only of me". And as much meaningless repetition as there is in "YumYum Bubblegum", there's also "And when I phone you up and you're not there / I wonder if you've stepped out for some air / Or maybe gone to buy yourself a chair / To stare at and pretend that I am there". And as the reprises and codas play out the record's final throes, I'm left with the odd and inspiring idea that I've just heard, in some vague but undeniable sense, a concept album. A concept album oblique enough to make In the Aeroplane Over the Sea look like Animal Farm, arguably, but an overarching character study, all the same, or the sung equivalent of a moiré folio that might sit on your coffee table for years before you notice that the artist has found a way to coerce a Spirograph into portraiture.
From Bubblegum to Sky: Me and Amy and the Two French Boys
If A Splendid Tray's version of pop still isn't quite pure enough for you, the album you may be looking for is the first full-length from ex-Ciao Bella singer Mario Hernandez's new project From Bubblegum to Sky. If you blindfolded random pedestrians and played both Me and Amy... and A Splendid Tray for them, I suspect many would be unable to hear a difference, but since nobody is likely to come across either disc through any means less drastic, the distinction can be as subtle as the few of us who'll care want it to be. "A kiss on the couch, it got fed so it grew / From North California to North Carolina", Anton says at one point on A Splendid Tray, and that's sort of the journey his music represents, two coasts of American guitar-pop subculture. Hernandez has been to those places, too, but his map extends to Europe and Japan, and his version of pop is thus sunnier, albeit, due his partial vocal resemblance to Billy Corgan, sometimes only slightly. "Hello Hello Hi" has grown on me since I first heard it on a single, and where I used to wait impatiently for the blustery Smashing Pumpkinettes choruses, now I'm probably even more fond of the muted verses, muttering guitar tapping along in sync with dry eighth-note kick-drum thumps. "Shaboom They Said" could be the Bay City Rollers via Cirque de Soleil, or Tullycraft covering Queen. "Don't Let the Day Go Mistreating You" affects both mod shuffle and an oddly guileless version of early-Stones swagger. "She Floats" is Mario's closest thing to a Neutral Milk Hotel song, but "All the trust-fund kids are singing / Sha-do-rah-ray, / Ordering latte / At their favorite café" isn't exactly Anne Frank, and I'm haunted by the idea that at any moment he's going to break into "Come On Eileen". "You of Summer" has enough vibraphones, bright mock-trombone synth slides and buoyant rhythms to be Swedish or French, but Mario's boyish singing makes it sound more like early Posies with different toys. "Ask the Space Invader" is a minor production anti-tour-de-force, music-box twinkle, synth squelches and crashing, unretouched drums adding up to something disconcertingly like a cross between the Backstreet Boys and the Shaggs. "Major J" springs from heads-down pub-rock grind to headlong punk-pop glee. The chirpy sub-two-minute anthem "I Wanna Be an American Boy" may be the closest anybody other than Tullycraft has ever come to impersonating the Judy's, and would fit fine on a compilation of classic low-fi pop gems with the Judy's' "Guyana Punch" and Tullycraft's "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About". The lurching "Me and Amy and the Two French Boys" itself sounds like an old Elton John song mutilated by a garage band whose bass player doesn't know how to turn down his amp or tune his instrument. "My Thousand Years With Robots", the a-side of the earlier single, brushes towards NMH again, but artless backing vocals counterbalance the rattling, cardboardy percussion, and the combination currently makes me think of Brian Dewan drumming for b'ehl. And Mario's answer to Anton's ending is "Beat to Beat", a sort of Pizzicato-Five-ish pastiche of the rest of the album. If Anton's challenge was disentangling himself from his own amusement, and discerning the borders between oblique and obtuse, then my guess is that Mario's is drawing the line that separates all the things he loves from the things he is. This album could so easily have been glibly effusive, merely another entrant in the permanent floating coy international-pop pageant from which Siesta and Shelflife and Marsh Marigold all recruit. I'm pretty sure that Mario likes Cinnamon and One Star and Acid House Kings a lot more than I do, and I half suspect that that's what this record was supposed to sound like. But if it weren't for the way we mis-hear our own voices, I'm not sure we'd ever have the courage to say anything.
Tullycraft: The Singles
There are many reasons to own Tullycraft records, but here's a very practical one: listening to a few Tullycraft songs in a row is the best way I've come across to gauge whether you ought to commit the requisitely enormous amount of your spare time and attention to the pursuit of obscure, low-fi, child-like bedroom-pop records. The first three songs on this album are probably enough. Track one is the jittery "Skyway", a 1:42 sprint that seems to overshoot every cadence, as if nobody ever told Sean Tollefson what they're there for. The first minute of "Superboy & Supergirl" finds Sean whispering over a near-subliminal bass growl, but the rest of it strains to become airy pop, like popsicle sticks dreaming of constituting an actual bridge. And track three is "Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend's Too Stupid to Know About", Tollefson's scene-summarizing and -defining masterpiece. If you get that far, and still want to hit him hard enough to knock him unconscious until he's old enough to prefer jazz, then maybe indie-pop isn't for you.
But if hearing Tullycraft's gushing naïveté for the first time brings back the day you first understood what people see in Andy Warhol, or Kurt Vonnegut, or Kevin Smith, the moment when you learned to separate craftsmanship from art, and recognize the latter without the former, then you're probably ready. The Singles is useful not only because can you use it for administering the test on yourself and your more patient friends, but because if anybody passes it will save them quite a bit of collecting time. The twenty-two songs here represent most of the contents of eight seven-inch singles and Tullycraft's contributions to four other compilations. "Skyway" and "Superboy & Supergirl" are from the Harriet single "True Blue" (although "True Blue" itself, mysteriously, is omitted). "Pop Songs..." is sort of cheating, since it was on the album Old Traditions, New Standards, but it was also on the Harriet compilation The Long Secret. The Buzzcocks-ish "Pink Lemonade" is Tullycraft's song from Papercut Records' four-band seven-inch Pilot. The becalmed/frantic kiss-off "Bailey Park" (part the Velvet Underground and part the Velvet Underground Babies) and the goofy synth-pop trifle "Pedal" are from a single on Cher Doll. The bubbly "Josie", in a way a pop rejoinder to "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker", and the similar scene-joke "Look How We Killed the Riot Grrrls" are from a Wurlitzer Jukebox single. The driving "1st String Teenage High", halting Jonathan-Richman-ish "Not Quite Burning Bridges", galloping "Piano Lessons for Beauty Queens" and choppy, poignant "Stay Cool I'll See You This Summer" (which I strongly suspect Sean wrote because he wanted to include the sentiment on a mix tape but couldn't find any songs that anybody else had written that said it) are all from the "1st String Teenage High" single on Little Teddy. The comparatively restrained cover of Stephin Merritt's "Falling Out of Love (With You)", which ends up being Tullycraft's best Sarah Records impression, was their track for Cher Doll's Something Cool compilation. The uncannily accurate cover of "Guyana Punch" was on a compilation called When I'm Hungry I Eat, and "She's Got the Beat", another Judy's cover, was on a 100 Guitar Mania single Tullycraft split with Avocado Baby. The bleary "Break Seaside (And Over)" and the fitful, Feelies-like "Maybe Baby" (a Ninjas cover) were on a KittyBoo single split with Bunnygrunt. Steve Gregory's "Heroes and Villains", which sounds a bit like a mangled Smiths song periodically interrupted by Heavenly, was Tullycraft's half of a Harriet single split with Rizzo. "They're Not Trying on the Dance Floor", which is Jonathan Richman-sounding, for once, because it is a Jonathan Richman song, was one of Tullycraft's two tracks on the second Harriet compilation, Friendly Society. The remaining three songs, new to this collection, are a hilariously languid alternate take of the City of Subarus track "8 Great Ways", a conversely frantic radio-session performance of "Crush This Scene", and the finale, a cover of New Order's "Love Less" (with its introductory college-radio PSA for adopting manatees intact) that manages to make it sound less like glum techno-pop than a hasty sketch for "Radio Free Europe".
There's a case to be made, actually, that all Tullycraft songs sound like hasty sketches for something else. Which is, in fact, both why I like them, and why I think that they matter, and are worth hearing even if you don't love them. Unless your life is substantially more rustic than mine, hasty sketches are often going to be all you have time for. If you don't learn to appreciate rough art, you'll never learn how to make it, and most of the things you do in your life will be done, per force, without art. We can't afford that much ugliness. We need to be able to improvise beauty. We need spontaneous mnemonics for fleeting, tentative epiphanies. Sometimes kisses are elaborately contrived, and you've got time for as much expensive overproduction and epic solemnity as you want. But those are rarely the good kisses. The good kisses are sudden, partly anticipated but partly surprising. Most of the best moments in life are ill-defined, incomplete and inconclusive. At least, I hope these are the best moments. I don't want to have to wait for better ones.