By Warren Moore

Review of Projector, by Steve Barton (Sleepless Records, 2010, available exclusively through iTunes)

From his days with the Beatlesque New Wavers Translator to his power-pop-tinged solo career, Steve Barton has been a spiky, energetic songwriter, combining memorable turns of phrase with slightly eccentric hooks and plaintive vocals. Much of his work has included an element of surprise, with accents falling unexpectedly and dissonances that can turn candy-coated at the drop of a downbeat.

Consequently, it both was and wasn’t surprising to discover Barton had released a new album with almost no prior notice to his fans. The album is Projector, and it covers both the familiar ground of songs of love and lust, and several songs dealing with the death of Barton’s father, Dan, last December.

The album was recorded and mixed on tape by Marvin Etzioni (formerly of Lone Justice), and the result is correspondingly raw—the music of raw nerves and truth. Moments of surpassing beauty such as the opening, “Elegy in D Barton,” are juxtaposed against the slightly chaotic immediacy of “These 4 Walls” and “Bowie Girl” (which is also available in a radio-friendly edit.)

The overdubbing is far from seamless throughout—Barton provides all the instrumental and vocal performances for most of the album—but instead of seeming sloppy, the effect is one of demo-flavored intimacy, the aural equivalent of a scratchy, 8mm home movie.

The overall effect is reminiscent of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album, which is not surprising, given Barton’s Lennonesque vocals. “Mojave Phone Booth” has an almost Tom Waits instrumental feel, and “Pie in the Face” feels like a quirky slice of rockabilly.

But the album’s heart is in the last two songs, “Super Fantastic Guy” and “Cut the Rope,” where Barton mingles the pain of his father’s loss with the joy of having known and loved him. In the first song he observes “If I say any more, I’ll cry,” but he sings anyway. Of course he does, because he must. In “Cut the Rope” he leaves the listener with the hope of eventual reunion, despite vast distances and unknown gulfs that intervene.

We’ve known of the cathartic power of art at least since Aristotle, and part of the artist’s gift is the ability to let his joys and pains stand for those we feel but lack the skill to render. Projector does that, and it reminds us that Steve Barton is an artist with a great deal to add to our conversation.