Album review by Eric Sandberg
Birds. I have an aversion to them. Not quite ophidiophobia — I enjoy the sounds they make — but something about beaks, talons, feathers, nests and eggs gives me the heebie jeebies. Worse than birds is people who act like birds. Whether they've been hypnotized at a magic show, they're Matthew Modine, Mark Fidrych, or they're just nuts — they scare me [there is no word for this particular fear...I tried looking it up].
I recently received an email with a link to a video featuring a man with wild white hair sitting in a giant bird's nest while musicians ply their trade wearing elaborate, realistic, bird heads. My pulse quickened but was soon flowing in time with the compelling beat. I couldn't get the tune "Manbird" out of my head until a couple of days later when a beautifully packaged double CD of the same name arrived in my mailbox including a fold out poster filled with photos, lyrics and track information. Yes, a double CD of new music to be released in the midst of a global pandemic that won't go away. Crazy, right? Actually, it's the opposite. It's just what we need right now. I currently have twenty-five different melodies constantly jostling for the pole position in my brain's music center.
The "Manbird" video was designed, created and shot by Julia VBH and Anton Barbeau at the farm during lockdown
Manbird is completely immersive and beautiful. It's not a sprawling collection of songs, it's a laser-focused chef-d'oeuvre of songwriting, concept, melody, arranging and performance that causes one to ponder how someone who has released over thirty albums over his career can still connect with such a vibrant muse.
The album is threaded with references to birds, beaks, nests and flying, inter-wreathed with images of traveling through airports, odd characters, childhood memories and dreams. It's not so much a concept album, but a very personal collection of songs employing this imagery to reflect a boy, and then a man, who is ever looking to get home.
"One funny thing, concept-album-wise, is that while all the birds and flight and airplane/airport images can be seen metaphorically, Manbird is also quite grounded in literalism." Barbeau tells me from his family farm in Northern California.
"The birds mentioned, and in some cases included, on the album are real. The blackbird singing at the top of "Coming Home" is the very one I hear when my 4:00 AM Berlin taxi comes to take me to the airport. The mockingbird is up high every morning on the power tower outside the window on the farm. So, yeah... I'm providing details from my real, daily life as well as dipping into childhood memories. I still have the "tight black jeans" from "Across The Drama Pond." They don't fit me anymore, but I still have 'em!"
"Across The Drama Pond" channels Scary Monsters era Bowie with its quirky arrangement, vocal mannerisms and lyrics that describe the adoption of different personas in order to jibe with the singers' various surroundings. The lovely and poppy "Memory Tone" describes how a sound can evoke memories and intense emotions while demonstrating Barbeau's skill as a singer. Like many brilliant musicians, Anton Barbeau does not possess a platinum selling voice — I'm tempted to describe it as Michael Stipe with a bad cold — but it suits his material and he wields it with deceptively great skill.
Considering the length of the album and the avian and aviation themes, I asked Barbeau if the album was the fevered product of an unexpected lengthy isolation.
'[Actually] the last touches to Manbird were applied towards the end of 2019, so it's definitely a pre-pandemic release. Manbird has been my primary focus since early 2018, I think. The Kenny vs Thrust album, released in January on Big Stir, took far less concentration to make. While Manbird is a double album of all new material, Kenny vs Thrust is a mix of old songs and 'that'll do' new songs, recorded in a burst of fun with my respective UK and US bands. Both albums turned out well, but Manbird was made with far more Intention."
Barbeau has been living in Germany for nearly ten years. He returned to California to renew his passport in March, just as the Coronavirus pandemic began to not 'just disappear.'
"I'm on a farm in California now. Given that Manbird is all about travel and searching for home, it's weirdly fitting that I've been grounded since March. This is the longest time I've spent in one place in years!"
The album mixes a variety of musical styles, from pop, rock. punk ["Featherweight] and psychedelia ["Underneath The Mushroom Tree]. The sheer quality and construction of every song will keep your fingers away from the skip button. The tense and epic "Coming Home" recalls Pink Floyd's The Wall, while "Birds Of North America" has a Donovan/Porpoise Song vibe.
I would love to write a treatise on every wonderful song on this album, discussing the vivid, resonant, lyrics, melodic figuration and lush, inventive, arrangements, but we try to keep things relatively brief here at Knock and Knowall. The music is layered with acoustic and electric guitar and a seemingly endless palette of retro and modern keyboard sounds, but it is the masterful urgency of Michael Urbano's drums that ensures it all works.
If you've been listening to Anton Barbeau for years and think he's fabulous, you are in for a treat because, with Manbird, he has upped his already considerable game exponentially.
If you've dallied with Barbeau's music in the past but have drifted away, it's time to "Come Home." Now.
If you're asking "Who the F*ck is Anton Barbeau!?" you need to find out and you need to start with Manbird. I personally guarantee that this album will improve your mental outlook well into Joe Biden's presidency.
Manbird takes flight [ugh! Sorry!] September 18. Details below.
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Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.