CD Review of Barenaked Ladies Are Men by Barenaked Ladies

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Barenaked Ladies Are Men
starstarstarstarno star Label: Nettwerk/Desperation
Released: 2007
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Here’s a scary thought: It’s been nearly ten years since Barenaked Ladies assaulted the Top 40 with “One Week,” bringing witty adult pop to “TRL” for the first (and last) time, and helping the band’s native Canada make up for years of Anne Murray, Bryan Adams, and Loverboy. The group’s profile has lowered considerably since then, but not for a lack of new music. BNL albums are released like clockwork every couple of years, which is probably part of the problem; they’re never away long enough for casual fans to miss them, and without some kind of gimmick to grab its attention – like, say, droll white rapping – the mass market tends to get bored with music this dependably well-written.

Humor, in general, is the double-edged sword that has sliced Barenaked Ladies’ sales to ribbons in the 21st century. They were young men when they wrote “Be My Yoko Ono” and “If I Had $1,000,000,” and if they still fell back on that kind of borderline-novelty subject material, they’d be creatively bankrupt or guilty of pandering (or both) – but that hasn’t stopped the cries of “Not as good as the older stuff” from growing louder with each successive release. That criticism hasn’t always been off the mark – albums like Maroon and Everything to Everyone definitely had more than their fair share of filler – but the drop in quality isn’t as profound as many people seem to think. More than anything, the band’s albums have charted a growth process – one that hasn’t been entirely painless, but then again, growth processes rarely are.

Barenaked Ladies Are Men is a companion piece of sorts to last year’s Barenaked Ladies Are Me. The bulk of it was released as part of that album’s Expanded Edition or Deluxe Edition or whichever of the two dozen configurations came with the extra tracks – but for less devout fans, or those who were simply unaware of their freedom of choice last fall, all of these 16 songs will be something new. And honestly, the folks who are hearing Are Men for the first time are better off; even on its own, this album is a lot to take in, and taken along with Are Me, it was almost impossible to digest. This is unfortunate, because in more than one way, Barenaked Ladies Are Men is a stronger, more cohesive set of songs.

It’s still way too long, of course; there’s a school of thought that says these two albums could have been boiled down into one killer 12-song release, and there’s some real weight behind that argument. What’s impressive, though, is that there aren’t any truly bad songs in the bunch – the band has now released the rough equivalent of three solid albums in less than a year, a feat many recording artists are unable to pull off in a decade. These songs are subtler and less frenetic than the band’s early material, which is bound to put off some fans, but what they lack in immediate appeal, they more than make up for in repeated listening.

Always pop classicists at heart, chief songwriters Steven Page and Ed Robertson have sharpened and augmented their tools with age; though there are no radical departures from the band’s old sound here, there’s no mistaking the relaxed confidence, subtler wit, and, in some cases, grown-up regret that informs songs like “Maybe Not,” “Beautiful,” and “The New Sad.” The band even takes de rigueur Bush-bashing and elevates it to a new, savagely sarcastic level with “Fun & Games” (choice lines: “We sat and crunched numbers / Of all the casualties we could afford / There’s no need to draft them / You could hear us laugh then / The poor and black all need their room and board / Did I say that out loud?”)

Fans hoping for another “Brian Wilson” or “The Old Apartment” are going to be disappointed again, but those hopes are unreasonable anyway, and they deserve to be dashed. More patient and open-minded listeners, however, will discover that Barenaked Ladies, in removing their tongues from their cheeks, have practiced addition by subtraction. Simply put, even if they often aren’t as funny as they were in their putative heyday, they’re actually a better band.

~Jeff Giles