This morning, fresh out of the shower, I heard an ad on the radio for Maroon, the new album by the Barenaked Ladies, and I just had to run straight out and buy it. After I’d put on some clothes, of course.
I first heard of the Barenaked Ladies (five guys, in case you’ve never heard of them) in 1992, when I was sharing a student flat with Paul Stefiszyn, who was from Canada (drop me a line if you’re listening, Paul!). They had just released their first album Gordon to enormous critical and popular acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic. It didn?t make much of a splash over here, though. And despite turning out a string of clever, catchy pop tunes, it wasn’t until their album Stunt (1998) that they really made it big in Britain as well. “One Week” was the hit single from that album, a fast tune with rapped lyrics and a bouncy chorus. It’s perhaps not completely typical of the BNLs’ musical style, but the lyrics are unmistakably theirs, a blend of the humorous, melancholy and insightful:
“How can I help it if I think you’re funny when you’re mad
Trying hard not to smile though I feel bad
I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral
Can’t understand what I mean? You soon will”
(from “One Week”)
Maroon picks up where Stunt left off. The first five songs are upbeat, infectious tunes that almost define the word “pop.” The beats are essentially simple (though Tyler Stewart on drums throws in plenty of interesting variations if you pay closer attention) and easy to tap your toes along to. The melodies are easy on the ear and sticky on the brain: even on a first listen you?ll be humming along to the choruses before each song is out. The lyrics are mostly lightweight, but written with a perfect ear for rhythm, pacing and singability:
“If you scream in your sleep, or collapse in a heap,
and spontaneously weep, then you know you’re in deep”
(from “Go Home”)
With deceptive ease, all of these elements come together in a series of neat 4-minute packages. The first single from the album, “Pinch Me,” is the third track, and is probably the most commercial of these first five songs. “Falling for the First Time” is my current personal favourite, though. It has a mesmerizing chorus to it that speaks of challenges suffered and overcome:
“Anyone perfect must be lying, anything easy has its cost
Anyone plain can be lovely, anyone loved can be lost
What if I lost my direction? What if I lost my sense of time?
What if I nursed this infection? Maybe the worst is behind”
(from “Falling for the First Time”)
In the second half (well, more like the second two thirds), the boys wander into styles that are reminiscent of their earlier work. The lyrics become less generic, more cynical, and start to work in a story-telling fashion: “Sell, sell, sell” is about fame, the media, and the movie business; “Off the Hook” is a cynical look at one partner constantly forgiving the other in one-sided relationships; and “Tonight is the night I fell asleep at the wheel” sort of speaks for itself. The tunes are a little more downbeat and sometimes dirgeful (“Tonight is the night…” would work well as a funeral march–I suspect this is intentional). Generally, they are a bit more difficult to get to grips with. I have no doubt, though, that they will grow on me like juicy grapes on the vine, ripening with age.
The album is produced by Don Was, master of the clever pop track (remember the unbearably catchy “Walk the Dinosaur” from the eighties? That was him. The album What Up, Dog? is an oft-overlooked classic). On previous albums the Barenaked Ladies have already proved themselves to be capable (co-) producers in their own right, and Was seems mostly content to let the BNL sound and colour speak for itself. His unique presence is felt most strongly in “Baby Seat,” with its basic beat and Hammond organ whirling away in the background. There are a few other tracks that have a slightly country feel to them, which could also be put down to his influence.
Maroon is more polished than Stunt, but has less of an edge to it. I feel this is a loss, because a lot of the Barenaked Ladies? appeal lies in their playful approach to their music and lyrics. Even on a bad day, though, the BNLs can knock out better tunes than 95% of the artists in the top forty. Maroon may be too smooth to be perfect, but it is nowhere short of excellent.