We gave it an A-
Rock critics have always tended to view Barenaked Ladies with a curious mixture of suspicion and distaste. Ask them why and they’ll mumble something about ”edge,” dismissing the clean-cut quintet as lightweights — too bland, too glib, too nice, too Canadian. Never mind that Americans snapped up 4 million copies of BNL’s last album, Stunt, or that the band puts on absolutely killer live shows. Seeming to speak for the profession as a whole, a music-writer buddy once told me he felt compelled to rethink his entire relationship with a woman friend upon learning she liked the band. ”It just really bothered me,” he said, summing up the degree to which this seemingly inoffensive pop group ruffles hipsters’ feathers.
Yet even my pal admits that BNL’s 1998 No. 1 single, ”One Week,” was a cannily infectious ditty only a tone-deaf, confirmed pop hater could deny. And, though we haven’t discussed it yet, he might agree with me that Maroon, the group’s sixth album, could be the purest pop record to come along in months. Produced by Don Was (Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones), it finds the band refining its musical strengths and expanding its lyrical worldview, pounding hooks and messages home with palpable passion and humor. Maroon also showcases the group’s talents as multi-instrumentalists. They augment the basic guitars-bass-drums-keyboards sound in places with viola, violin, melodica, flute, and the like, lending a Sgt. Pepper feel to the proceedings.
Though BNL songwriting team Steven Page and Ed Robertson have always had a strong sense of what makes a pop tune memorable — think back to ”Brian Wilson” and ”If I Had a $1,000,000” — they’ve sometimes struggled to fill an entire album with keepers. This time, they’ve delivered that too-rare musical commodity: a disc overflowing with potential hits. The perky ”Too Little Too Late” sounds like some long-lost, circa-’79 power-pop classic, all crunching guitars, galloping drums, and sugary harmonies. Elsewhere, the anthemic ”Baby Seat” conjures up a stadium full of lighter- (or is that cell-phone-?) waving fans chanting the endearingly dopey chorus ”You can’t live your life in the baby seat/You’ve got to stand on your own/Don’t admit defeat.” And the good-timey ”Go Home” sounds like the best song the Lovin’ Spoonful never got around to recording.
But while those songs function primarily as well-executed updates of classic pop formulas, there’s a far more perverse and intriguing side to BNL: their seldom-discussed penchant for candy-coating bitter lyrical pills with upbeat music. Hardcore fans may remember the deeply depressive poesy hidden under the cheery melodies of the band’s third album, Born on a Pirate Ship (1996). That grim sensibility is back, here put to more artful use on a series of barbed song stories that combine music and lyrics to emotionally devastating effect. ”Conventioneers” frames its poignant portrait of an ill-advised love affair between coworkers against a dreamy cocktail-jazz backdrop, while ”Helicopters,” with its central image of leaving an unidentified war-torn city, is chilling. Meanwhile, the orchestrally sweeping ”Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” — a first-person account of a fatal traffic accident (”Now I’m floating above looking in/As the radio blares and wheels spin”) — evokes the taut mood of such music-noir classics as Steely Dan’s ”Charlie Freak.”
It’s unsettling stuff, especially coming from a bunch of ostensibly cheery Canucks. But don’t worry: With it’s unflaggingly upbeat sound, Maroon is a far cry from such wrist-slitter records as, say, Lou Reed’s Berlin. And who knows? The gloomy lyrical themes may even cause pundits to rethink their take on BNL (rock writers do love subversion, after all). ”I’m so cool, too bad I’m a loser/I’m so smart, too bad I can’t get anything figured out” sings Robertson on ”Falling for the First Time,” piling paradox upon paradox. Elsewhere, Page sardonically paraphrases Bob Dylan’s famous line from ”She Belongs to Me”: ”I’m an artist, don’t look back.” Don’t look back, indeed. Kneejerk naysayers should consider Maroon a fresh start, a ‘naked launch that should finally remove the stigma from BNL fandom. A-