[4 October 2006]
The success of Barenaked Ladies’ breakthrough 1998 album, Stunt, stuck them with a tag that they’ve been working since to get rid of—that of a joke band. The band name didn’t help, and the song pastiches, geeky pop-culture references, and macaroni tossing at concerts have cemented the idea most people have of BNL as almost-comedy, a stigma that has prevented many folks from enjoying their last few still-witty-but-more-serious albums. Not that comedians and parodists like “Weird” Al don’t do alright for themselves, but you’ve got to imagine that these Canucks are kicking themselves for the fact that so much of the music they’ll be remembered for borders on novelty.
The fact of the matter is, Barenaked Ladies are great musicians, period. Their blend of pop/rock has become almost elegant as the years have gone by, with the punchline element reigned in for a more subtle (but still witty!) approach. Songwriters Steven Page and Ed Robertson have been able to cover topics ranging from life’s monotony to alcohol abuse to inter-office relationships with style, sarcasm, and a bit more musical dexterity than they’re normally given credit for. Add in the oil/water mix of Robertson’s everyguy vocals and Page’s near-operatic belting, and you have one of the more refreshing musical stews to break big over the past decade or so.
Barenaked Ladies Are Me might be BNL’s debut as an indie act (well, sort of, as the album, while on the indie label Nettwerk, is still distributed by the folks at Warner who’ve been behind every Ladies CD to date), but it’s also pretty much everything you’d expect from a BNL album, and there’s a lot to be said for giving your listeners the same old-same old, as long as the same old is good. Any of the album’s songs would sound great on a long drive. It’s simple, melodic, slightly quirky pop-rock, easy to sing, easy to remember… and why should it surprise anyone that the (hooky, simple, melodic, upbeat) first single is called “Easy”?
Despite subtle changes in basic sound (and several changes in lead singer—four of the band’s five members take at least one shot at the mic), this whole album goes down easily. No band I can think of makes better pop-flavored rock, with the exception of Fountains of Wayne. Certainly, there aren’t a lot of bands out there with better harmonies. The album’s choruses and hooks are all quite reminiscent of the soothing harmonies of ‘70s bands like the Carpenters, America, and Bread.
This album continues to reveal Barenaked Ladies’ secret weapon: Kevin Hearn. Since jumping onboard just prior to the band’s American breakthrough, Hearn has not only battled and survived leukemia, but he’s emerged as a nifty (if a bit odd) songwriter and a musical everyman. On this album, Hearn not only contributes a good deal of the songwriting (including the Page-led riff-pop showcase “Sound of Your Voice”), but he also takes a turn on damn near every instrument that’s not nailed down. His boyish, hesitant vocals are the centerpiece of the dark ballad “Vanishing”, as well. While BNL has been known as the Page/Robertson band for quite some time, Hearn (who makes very solid records with his own band, Thin Buckle) makes his case on Barenaked Ladies Are Me as an equal third.
Although no one song really sticks out on this album as a certified smash, there are plenty of enjoyable moments here. “Maybe You’re Right” is the typical bravura Page vocal performance, which gets more odd once string and horn sections barge in and turn the song into something that sounds like Herb Alpert and Burt Bacharach gone slightly demented. “Bank Job” contains an easygoing vocal from Robertson in the guise of a bank robber whose heist goes slightly awry when it turns out that the bank is populated by… well, hear the song and find out for yourself. You’ll get a chuckle out of it. “Take It Back” has an ominous piano line that’s somewhat reminiscent of the theme from The Exorcist, as well as bizarre lyrics like “We will never lose if we remove our shoes”, but it’s still a winning slice of sturdy jangle-rock.
There’s a lot to be said for solid and dependable. We like it in our cars, our mattresses, our homes. Barenaked Ladies, over the course of their sixteen year career, have become just that. Barenaked Ladies Are Me won’t win over any converts, and probably won’t grab any teenage fans, but if you’ve loved them for this long, you definitely won’t be disappointed by this album.