CD Review of Barenaked Ladies Are Me by Barenaked Ladies

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Barenaked Ladies Are Me
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Desperation/Nettwerk
Released: 2006
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If you were to use a song title to describe the precipitous fall from grace that the Barenaked Ladies have suffered since the halcyon days of 1998 and their ubiquitous summer single “One Week,” the obvious choice would be the Smiths’ “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” In what seemed like an instant, the thing that attracted people to the Ladies’ unique brand of smirk-pop had become the band’s albatross. What was once clever is now considered stupid. Maybe Spinal Tap were on to something on the fine line between the two.

But, in fairness to the legions of former BNL fanatics who have since jumped off the bandwagon (of which this writer is one), the band really hasn’t made a solid record since 1994’s Maybe You Should Drive – and even that one was a shock to the system on first listen – so upon further inspection, BNL’s big crash was actually years in the making, only to be interrupted by the surprise mainstream success of “One Week” and its respective, chart-topping (but average) album, Stunt. By the time the band’s last proper album, 2003’s Everything to Everyone (we’re not counting that dreadful Christmas record from 2004), was released, the band was getting out-danced by OK Go and out-snarked by everyone else. It was as if the whole world got the memo: Barenaked Ladies were done.

Luckily for the Ladies, they have never been fashionable, which makes it easier for them to persevere than, say, A Flock of Seagulls or Days of the New. And persevere they have, with a new record, Barenaked Ladies Are Me, on a new label, Desperation. (Don’t cry for them; Warner Brothers is the distributor, so they’re not slumming on some indie.) Will this change their luck any? To be honest, probably not, and ironically, it’s the lack of energy and, dare I say it, humor that does the album in. Call it Ben Folds Disease: Curse of the Sourpuss.

The album crawls out of the gate with “Adrift,” which I’ve now listened to six times and couldn’t tell you a single thing about it. The second track, “Bank Job,” is at least memorable, but still plodding, and in guitarist Ed Robertson’s need to maintain the rhyme scheme, he wound up sabotaging the heist in question, as well as the song, by filling the bank with nuns. Yep, nuns. And correct me if I’m wrong, but is this the first time a BNL album has opened with two Ed songs? Heck, even the first song sung by Steven Page, “Sound of Your Voice,” was written by keyboardist Kevin Hearn. In fact, Hearn gets two songwriting credits here and sings lead on the other one, “Vanished.” You’ll wish Page had sung that one, too.

The problem with Barenaked Ladies Are Me is that, well, this doesn’t seem like the Barenaked Ladies at all. Sure, it has all of their songwriting sensibilities, but it’s devoid of personality, which was the band’s biggest selling point. There is also a whiff of the familiar, as “Home” stands a little too closely to Maybe You Should Drive’s “You Will Be Waiting,” and the chorus to “Easy,” with its lines “Easy to be with you, easy to obey / Easy to forgive you at the end of the day,” will get the hairy eye from Cowboy Mouth fans. The songs sound nothing alike, but this “Easy” will nonetheless make one think of the other “Easy.”

Here’s the most maddening part about the album: just when you’re about to give up on it (that would be Hearn’s vocal on “Vanishing”), the last two songs save it from being a total loss. “Rule the World with Love” has the album’s best chorus by a country mile, a Beatlesque minor-key thingy that fits the song’s peace-and-love lyric. The album’s closer, “Wind It Up,” actually sports a rockin’ little guitar solo, which makes you wonder just what in the hell kept them from doing any of these things on the previous 11 tracks.

The corporate circuit is surely calling BNL by now, and at this point, they should probably pick up the phone. The gigs pay great, and as long as you stick to what people know, the crowds will be receptive. What some bands don’t want to accept is that it’s almost better for people to not know they’re putting out new albums, especially when the album is along the lines of Barenaked Ladies Are Me. As the saying goes, it’s better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

~David Medsker