Steve Barton, best known outside of his circle of friends and family as one of
the two lead singers/songwriters of San Francisco-based new wave band
Translator, has just released a solo album called Charm Offensive.
It's 23 years since the indie record label my partner Chris Knab and
I started, 415 Records, released Translator's debut album, Heartbeats
and Triggers. The big underground hit on that album was Steve's and
Translator's signature song, "Everywhere That I'm Not." I liked
it, but I was always a little more partial to the dark, brooding songs
of Bob Darlington, the other Translator singer, than to Steve's more
British Invasion-like upbeat pop tunes. I was a distinct minority. As
a DJ on college station KUSF I always felt I should balance Darlington's
depressing songs with Barton's peppier ones if only to make everyone
on the label feel the fairness doctrine, soon to be vetoed by Reagan,
was in play. And speaking of fairness, every time I played one of their
songs I felt I needed to announce that I owned the label it was on and
that I could personally benefit by playing their music. (That worked
great for me in all ways and I never quite understood why the FCC was
so stupid.) But now I have no financial gains to make by hyping Barton's
music. I just want to. Because it sounds great. Really great. I mean,
he was a good songwriter back in the '80s. But he's better now.
Steve always knew how to turn a phrase better than I knew how to appreciate one. But since then I've been working with songwriters who don't fool around when it comes to that kind of stuff people like Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Billie Joe Armstrong, Neil Young and I've learned too. The first time I heard "Monument" from Charm Offensive it was the precisely-controlled sonic buildup that caught my attention the way the song's wet musical intensity inexorably, but always with admirable subtlety, made me think how it should be this easy for musicians to write compelling hit songs that could be appreciated by people with three-digit IQs. And eventually my instant addiction to the way he uses the sounds led me to pay attention to Barton's phrase-turning.
I want to be your monument
Crawl between your dreams and your legs
Hide myself away
Capture moments broken and frail
Though stronger than the days of the week.
I want to feel your breath again
On a frozen beach where the wind won't go
Oh God you look good
Standing in the winter light
Beyond the thin cruel lips of the world.
I know this is a family publication so I'm not gonna get explicit about what the sheer, intense beauty of a song like this makes me feel. (But it's good.)
Friends tell me Translator used to do a cover of The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home." I don't remember ever having heard them do it. I do remember celebrating the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 by pardon the ancient expression dropping a tab of acid Tim Leary had given me. I always tended to open up to music faster on acid and I liked "She's Leaving Home." I like Barton's version better, an urgent, insistent melding of the Beatles' arch poignancy with a powerful punk-rock aesthetic. (Ironic how Barton's first producer, David Kahne, works with McCartney these two decades later.)
Those two songs, along with "When You're Gone," the opening track of Charm Offensive, mark the album's sweet spot. Barton and I both lost our moms recently: he while he was writing Charm Offensive, me while Joni Mitchell was re-recording "Both Sides Now" with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Joni's song became my soundtrack to my mother's final illness and passing (I shared an advance copy of it with her). Barton wrote the thoughtful though powerful, optimistic and upbeat "When You're Gone" about his mom's passing, a different approach entirely. But one whose great appeal, albeit very different from how Darlington probably would have approached the subject, I have embraced entirely. Barton may write pop songs, but he always and I mean always lets you see the difference between himself and the people who write pop songs for Britney and Madonna and all that junk polluting the corporate airwaves.
Barton's meanings don't lurk that deeply beneath the surface and you don't ever have to worry they might not be there. If Barton were a pitcher he'd be admired for his curveballs. I was telling a kid from Visalia who IM-ed me a few minutes ago about this CD. He asked me what category the music is in. I guess you could file it under "smart songwriter with melodies, passion and an interesting perspective." He got it. You should too.