Barenaked Ladies – Maroon

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.

The Grill Room at the Sheraton

Along with the Atrium, the Grill Room at the Sheraton Grand Hotel is one of only two restaurants in Edinburgh with three AA rosettes. After hearing some excellent recommendations, it’s been on my list of “must visit” places for a while now. Yesterday, to celebrate a certain special occasion (whose details I’m not at liberty to discuss…yet), my darling cutie wife and I gathered our appetites and set off in the direction of Lothian Road.

The setting is a little unusual. The Sheraton has two restaurants, the Terrace and the Grill Room. The Terrace looks out over the plaza in front of the hotel, and the Grill Room has windows that look out over the Terrace. (Even further inside is the Lobby bar, where you can go for a drink before your meal. It’s not cheap, but they do mix an utterly ravishing long vodka.) The decor is plush, with deeply sculpted ceilings, and walls inlaid with wood panelling and smoked mirrors. Original oil paintings depict scenes of country life: lots of dogs, and hunters stalking game on the wind-swept hills of Bonnie Scotland. (But in a tasteful way. Honest.) You are enveloped in an unmistakable air of luxury, but at the same time it didn’t feel too posh or highbrow. I was wearing my standard uniform of chinos, polo shirt and a light sweater, and this felt about right. Some of the other diners were wearing sport coats and open-necked shirts, but I didn’t think the atmosphere necessarily called for the formality of a jacket and tie.

The Menu Saison (fixed-price menu: £26 for two courses, £29 for three) is displayed prominently outside the restaurant, and features some splendid-sounding dishes, like smoked salmon with blinis, crème fraiche and chives; and tenderloin of venison, root vegetables, dauphinoise potato and balsamic jus. But it’s only when you sit down at your table that your waiter brings you the à la carte menu–and what a menu it is! For a restaurant of this style, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large selection: it opens with ten appetizers and four soups, and then proceeds to shower you with a selection of twelve entrées, three of which are vegetarian. And that’s excluding the grilled sirloin and fillet steaks, which warrant a section all of their own.

The wine list is varied but restrained, and interestingly also features a separate supplement for wines served by the glass. A beautifully laid out brochure gives full descriptions of about fifteen whites and reds from all over the world, and makes recommendations on which wine is likely to go with what type of dish–a very useful feature for someone like myself who can narrow his taste down to a grape, but then chooses by whether the label looks nice. The idea behind the by-the-glass list is that if you’re dining on your own, you don’t have to order a whole bottle, or to just allow you to enjoy a greater variety of wines with your meal.

This tactic allowed me to enjoy a smoky Macon Lugny white (£4.75 per glass) with the complimentary amuse bouche (witch flounder with a julienne of carrot and courgette in red pepper oil) and my first course of langoustine tail with wild mushrooms and scallops feuillantine, drizzled with langoustine butter (£12). The langoustine tails were exquisite bites of concentrated shellfish flavours, and they went very well with the earthiness of the mushrooms–surf ‘n’ turf with a vegetarian twist. (Seafood is fruits de mer in French. So they’re fruit, and thus okay for vegetarians, n’est-ce pas?)

Choosing a main course was difficult, the menu being casually littered with things like whole grilled Scottish lobster served in its shell with vierge sauce, and roast lamb fillet with courgettes, tomatoes and olive and truffle sauce. In the end I went for home smoked and roasted Gressingham duck breast and confit leg with pickled ginger beurre blanc (£21), and didn’t regret it at all. The leg was crispy on the outside, and falling-apart tender within its salty crust. The breast was cooked pink and sliced thick enough to be perfect for swirling and daubing in the sauce. The pickled ginger flavour came through in the form of a Chinese twang: subtle, but enough to completely transform a traditional jus. The vegetables that came with it were asparagus, and a healthy pile of fresh garden peas and tiny cubes of potato and carrot. A single glass of Torres Gran Coronas (£4.75) formed a perfect rich, smoky accompaniment.

My wife, who had chosen a more moderate selection of dishes from the Menu Saison, was full up by this point, but I was only just getting started! I was forced to polish off her “pressert” (a surprisingly light and palette-cleansing chocolate sorbet) as well as my own. And then I just had to try the raspberry and strawberry millefeuille with Chiboust cream and raspberry coulis (£6.50). This arrived on a plate with the coulis arranged in geometric patterns, outlined by thin chocolate borders. The millefeuille itself was a towering inferno of fresh berries and crispy pastry slices supported by clumps of the thickest, richest vanilla custard you can imagine. The strawberries were juicy, and the raspberries were tart. A bite of both, slathered with the Chiboust was like summer itself exploding in my mouth.

So does the Grill Room live up to its reputation? I certainly think so. The setting is marvellous, and the food is prepared to a very high standard. It’s unquestionably one of Edinburgh’s top restaurants, and after yesterday evening I can recommend it highly, and without hesitation.