Saturday, June 8, 2013

album review: 'grinning streak' by the barenaked ladies

What, you actually thought I wasn't going to open with this clip? Tsk, tsk, it's almost like none of you know me at all.
And yet, the clip raises an interesting point, and for an American audience, one could easily think that Jeff has a point here. After all, are The Barenaked Ladies that relevant or essential in today's day and age? Why do so many people leap to defend the band, when they've never quite earned the critical praise or success to merit such a reaction? To put it simply, why do people care about The Barenaked Ladies?

Well, I'm sure everyone has their reasons - I know I like them because they're excellent lyricists, have a gift for catchy hooks, and a real poignancy that runs through their best tracks - but I think it comes down to one simple fact: The Barenaked Ladies are a musical personification of the awkward yet adorable teenage nerd. Putting aside all of the songs that seem to be clearly written from that perspective, The Barenaked Ladies might be one of the nerdiest bands to ever perform. Sure, Devo and Depeche Mode fall into the same category, but The Barenaked Ladies seemed to be of a different type in that they clearly embraced their distinct lack of coolness and used it to make unironic, incredibly sincere music. And yes, there was plenty of hidden depths and darkness in some of their material, but for the most part, their discography is much lighter and happier than most would expect, particularly for an alt-rock band from the 90s. And in an era soaked in ironic detachment and a morose 'whatever' attitude, The Barenaked Ladies' wholehearted embrace of sincerity stood out. And thus, it makes sense why people cherish their memories of The Barenaked Ladies: they were the solitary rays of sunshine in the grunge-ridden alt-rock scene of the 90s.

That said, I also get why Jeff has a certain distaste for the band, and as a fan of The Barenaked Ladies, I would be hardpressed to consider all of their output solid. Part of me knows that their major label debut Gordon wouldn't have been nearly as popular without the bootlegging phenomenon of the time period, and while that album is indeed one of the best albums of the 90s, it's not surprising that many people thought the band would flame out, particularly considering their subpar followups with Maybe You Should Drive and Born On A Pirate Ship. Fortunately, the band had recovered by the end of the 90s and put out Stunt and Maroon, two ridiculously great albums that seemed to fit perfectly in the sunny, optimistic music scene of the time, even despite the occasional biting satire and hidden darkness lurking in each album.

And then 9/11 happened, and happy, optimistic music evaporated from the charts, taking The Barenaked Ladies' success along with it. It's really the only explanation I can think of why The Barenaked Ladies stopped having hits, because it wasn't as if they got less witty or their material got worse. In fact, many critics argued that their next few albums got even better, with sharp wit and an uncanny knack for memorable hooks anchoring their material. But this was the era of post-grunge and emo-driven pop rock, and while some alternative rock acts managed to notch hits, The Barenaked Ladies wouldn't have really fit well with modern radio. I hesitate to use the term 'too good' for airplay, because I don't think it's apt - no, if anything, I think The Barenaked Ladies stopped having hits because their music defiantly lacked a surface 'edge' to it. They never were a 'sexy' act, they were distinctly uncool, and while their songwriting had plenty of cutting words and barbed themes, I can definitely see where mainstream radio wouldn't have accepted them.

It didn't help matters that in 2009, Steven Page left the band amidst rumours of cocaine addiction. This was a big problem for The Barenaked Ladies, half because Steven Page was one of the faces of the band, and half because he was also one of the better songwriters of the act. His music tended to be more sour and complex, utilizing his acrid wit to disguise some real darkness in his material, and a lot of people thought that The Barenaked Ladies couldn't really survive without him. Yet in 2010, they put out the reasonably sold album All In Good Time, which worked as well as it did by focusing tightly on the departure of Steven Page and making that loss the emotional core of the album. And for the most part, it worked, mostly on the strength of Ed Robertson's incredibly emotive delivery and the lyrics that seemed to leap straight from the heart. 

But outside of the mild chart success of 'You Run Away', The Barenaked Ladies got nowhere with All In Good Time, mostly because alternative rock was getting nowhere on the charts. Keep in mind this was 2010 - the club boom was in full swing, and modern rock radio was on life support, subsisting on the Foo Fighters and whatever was left in the post-grunge wasteland. Even if The Barenaked Ladies had released another Gordon or Stunt, they wouldn't have broken through the club hits that year.
But now it's 2013, and the charts are much more receptive to rock music. 90s and 70s nostalgia is in, and if there was a band that could define the 90s 'mood' in popular culture, I'd probably cite The Barenaked Ladies. And on cue, they have a new album, albeit with the disquieting title Grinning Streak (those two words just sound awkward together, at least to me). So will it be the hit to catapult them back into stardom, or the final blow to sink their careers for good?
Well, to be honest, I think the album falls into a middle ground. It's not their worst album by any stretch of the mind, but it's also not within spitting distance of classic territory and it's pretty easy to nail down why. 

To put it simply, The Barenaked Ladies attempted to modernize their sound on Grinning Streak - and it doesn't work with the band at all.

Actually, that's being a bit unfair, because there still is a fair amount of 'good' here, but the areas where Grinning Streak really doesn't work are entirely related to the production and the attempts to fuse it with The Barenaked Ladies' traditional sound (that of an uptempo alternative pop rock act with the occasional bit of idiosyncratic instrumentation that comes out of nowhere). Now The Barenaked Ladies have always striven to sound like music of their time (it's hard to forget the record scratching in the mid-to-late 90s work), but here the fusion just doesn't flow well, the glitchy electronica balanced poorly against the analog instrumentation. Part of the problem is that The Barenaked Ladies' lyrical melodies have always had a certain rollicking flow at their best, and it clashes badly against the harsher electronic elements.

It also doesn't help matters that the album can drag at points. This has been a minor issue with The Barenaked Ladies since their inception, however, so I'm inclined to let it slide, but when combined with the out-of-place-seeming electronic elements and the presence of any lead performance other than Ed Robertson, it becomes tedious. All three of these components come to a head on 'Daydreaming', an underwritten and painfully dull electronic slop that grinds on for nearly six minutes. And while there was evidence to suggest that The Barenaked Ladies were going for a more atmospheric sound on All In Good Time, it really comes more to the forefront here and I can't really say I'm much of a fan of it.

Here's the thing: The Barenaked Ladies are at their best when they're interesting. Not always when they have something to say, mind you, but when they as a band can produce and deliver something that's intriguing, typically in their lyrics. So a choice to move towards more atmospheric material might be understandable in the wake of Steven Page's departure, but I'm not convinced it's a good fit for the band, mostly because Ed Robertson's delivery isn't really suited for it. The only reason 'You Run Away' worked as well as it did was the emotive context, not because they blew their production up to eleven. And really, if there's a band I can tolerate acoustically, it'd be The Barenaked Ladies because it's sincere, witty, and can support the 'smaller' instrumentation.

But then again, relying on deftly clever lyrics might not be a full option for The Barenaked Ladies anymore, given Page's departure, and here's where we run into the other problem with this album. Let me be fair and say there are definite moments of wit and charm on Grinning Streak that do a ton to save it from mediocrity. Hell, I'd argue 'Boomerang' and particularly 'Odds Are' are some of the best songs The Barenaked Ladies have released in years. However, both songs are also courtesy of cowriters working with Ed Robertson, in this case Zac Maloy of The Nixons and Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra. In fact, I'd argue all their good songs on this album are with outside collaborators.

And that's when it really hit me: Grinning Streak is trying to recreate the 'quirk' and energy of Steven Page, and it can't quite get it, and while you have the sincerity of Ed Robertson's vocals, the whole endeavor is starting to seem more than a little calculated. What used to come naturally now requires additional hands, and while I'll admit the songs are good, they're a little too innocent and lacking in personality to really stick (with the exception of 'Odds Are', but that song works so damn well because it gleefully amps up the nerdy silliness to the top and Ed Robertson is really giving his all). The frustrating part is that Page's darker lyrics and rougher delivery was a good balance against Ed Robertson's lighter tone, and without that balance, the album just feels lightweight, almost to the point of sounding like Owl City with the modernized production. 

Fortunately for us all, Robertson is too much of a boy scout to undercut his music with questionable lyrics (one of my consistent issues with Owl City), and he's still a good enough songwriter to deliver material that sounds heartfelt. It's just that without Page's darker wit, Grinning Streak lacks that hidden edge, that organic yet still precisely calibrated punch that made so many Barenaked Ladies songs really intriguing. And with Page's absence, I can't help but feel the album is significantly weaker.

In recent months, there has been a backlash against 'quirk for the sake of quirk', mostly targeted at tropes like The Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Hell, I even contributed to this backlash in my Tegan & Sara review - so why do I give The Barenaked Ladies something of a pass? Well, to me it comes down to sincerity and songwriting, and when The Barenaked Ladies are at their best, they deliver strongly on both fronts. But after listening through Grinning Streak, I'm starting to see the cracks, and I can definitely understand more fully where others are coming from on this. 

In short, while the album is pretty good (with the standout 'Odds Are' rising to the top of my list of awesome summer songs that I'll be listening to on repeat for who knows how long), I wouldn't call it great and I have a hard time recommending it. If you're a fan, give it a look, but it's nowhere near as good as their greats. 

Because even with sincerity, the Barenaked Ladies' brand of quirk can become tiresome, and watching them try to recapture the spark on this album wasn't all that pretty.

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