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Barenaked Ladies

Grinning Streak

(Vanguard; US: 4 Jun 2013; UK: 17 Jun 2013)

Over the past 25 years, the Barenaked Ladies have experienced being an overnight sensation in Canada as well as mainstream popularity in the United States and around the world. They’ve also experienced the inevitable passing of that popularity, keyboardist Kevin Hearn’s diagnosis and recovery from leukemia, co-frontman Ed Robertson’s plane crash (he and three others walked away unhurt), and the departure of the band’s other co-frontman, Steven Page, in 2009. It’s been an eventful career for Barenaked Ladies, and 2010’s All in Good Time found the band engaged and trying new things in the wake of Page’s desertion. Rather than have Robertson take on all of the vocal duties full time, Hearn and bassist Jim Creegan each contributed songs and lead vocals to the album and the band gamely tried to make a go of it. As a whole, All in Good Time didn’t really hold a candle to any of the band’s first five albums, but many of the songs fared well when compared the rest of the band’s output.


Grinning Streak, sadly, is a different story. This album is the sound of a veteran band punching the clock. After 25 years, Barenaked Ladies knows how to write a solid pop song but there isn’t much energy or enthusiasm behind the tracks on this album. Now that they’re firmly established as a four-piece band, their doesn’t seem to be much for them to prove or get excited about. So this is them writing songs, recording an album, and getting back on the road. They have families and employees to support now, and this is how they do it. Really, the album cover says it all, even though it isn’t intended that way. The original cover of the band’s debut album, Gordon, is a ridiculous relic from the early ‘90s, but it’s also a snapshot of a bunch of fresh-faced young adults having a grand, goofy time.


Contrast that with Grinning Streak, where a group of middle-aged men stand stony-faced in black suits and ties in a weak bit of irony involving the album title. The irony doesn’t last, but the images (on the cover and throughout the liner notes) of the Barenaked Ladies not having any fun (or at the very least pretending not to) linger. The album’s first song, “Limits”, begins with a repeated bass synth effect that slides into a drum loop. It’s an interesting departure for the band, but as soon as Robertson’s voice and Hearn’s piano come in at the 30-second mark, everything clicks right back into the band’s comfort zone. Even though the electronic elements linger in the background through the track, nothing about the song really feels fresh. The refrain pretty much sums it up: “Hold on to your armrests / Don’t be alarmed I’m gonna do my best / ‘Cause it’s a long haul and I’m in this / And once in a while I exceed the posted limits.” Yes, once in a while the Barenaked Ladies may do something as daring as speeding a little bit, but mostly they’re going to be predictable and completely safe.


But that’s not really a problem, as Barenaked Ladies have been predictable and safe pretty much from their second album onward. As with most of the stuff on Grinning Streak, “Limits” isn’t a bad song. It’s perfectly catchy, aside from the jazzy rock piano solo that seems interminable but really only takes up about 70 seconds. But Barenaked Ladies’s best material, particularly Robertson’s, has always had a certain lyrical specificity that made the songs feel like they were about something. Even if that something was cramming four dozen pop culture references into a four minute song. That specificity is sadly lacking through most of this album. The album’s obvious single candidate (but oddly, not the first single) “Did I Say That Out Loud?” has some of these lyrical problems. The music’s underlying synth bass and thumping beat successfully combine with a catchy melody and overall feel reminiscent of the band’s most popular songs. When Robertson sings “Put your hands in the air / Wave ‘em like you care / And I’ll be there” it’s a cute inversion of a popular dance music chant. But making it the repetitious lynchpin of the chorus turns it aggravating real fast. Other lines like “And my heart goes Boom Boom Pow” and “When you kiss me, and it hits me / If I try to write about it someone’s gonna diss me” demonstrate how awkwardly that same pop culture referencing schtick is aging as the members creep towards their mid-40s. The slightly bouncy “Gonna Walk” is a head-bobber, but the refrain is just lazy. “I’m gonna walk / I won’t quit / ‘Til I get / To the bottom of your heart” is absolutely generic and the verses aren’t much better. “Give It Back to You” is a standard issue “I messed up, I’m sorry, please take me back” heartbreak ballad whose only character is its resemblance to the band’s old Stunt-era single “Call and Answer.”


Grinning Streak does have some high points that stand out amongst all of the by the numbers pop songs. “Odds Are” is a true highlight, with verses discussing the chances of dying in a horrifying accident, then concluding in the chorus that “The odds are that we / will probably be alright” in a catchy singalong. It helps that the music of the song is a vaguely country stomp driven by a simple acoustic guitar riff. It’s the kind of track that would be a major hit if Taylor Swift was singing it. “Off His Head” has an oddball, slightly Auto-tuned sample of Robertson singing “Daddy’s gonna be off his head” that repeats in various chopped-up incarnations throughout the song. It’s a compelling, unusual choice for the band that complements a typically hooky chorus. “Best Damn Friend” has what seem to be personal lyrics from Robertson about getting therapy and being honest in relationships, and it gives a middling song more heft because it’s specific without being preachy.


So Grinning Streak is listenable throughout, but aside from those occasional highlights, it’s not a compelling listen. After divvying up the songwriting on their previous album, this record is indeed the Ed Robertson show, as he sings and writes or co-writes (with outside people, not fellow band members) 11 of the 12 songs on the record. He isn’t quite up to the challenge of doing it all. It’s good that Barenaked Ladies aren’t ready to throw in the towel and just be a nostalgia act, but it’s going to take a better effort than this to get their fans excited about their new material.

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