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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Born On A Pirate Ship

BARENAKED LADIES: BORN ON A PIRATE SHIP (1996)

1) Stomach Vs. Heart; 2) Straw Hat And Old Dirty Hank; 3) I Know; 4) This Is Where It Ends; 5) When I Fall; 6) I Live With It Every Day; 7) The Old Apartment; 8) Call Me Calmly; 9) Break Your Heart; 10) Spider In My Room; 11) Same Thing; 12) Just A Toy; 13) In The Drink; 14) Shoe Box.

Third time around, and it's sort of a bummer. A little weakened, perhaps, by the departure of Andy Creeggan, but also seemingly a little strengthened by Page and Robertson deciding to col­laborate more tightly in the songwriting process, Born On A Pirate Ship makes the fatal mistake of being way too dark and serious way too much of the time. This state is simply not natural for these guys — they may be funny, or sarcastic, or smart, or witty, or poignant, or snobby, but singing songs of spiritual torment does not agree with these other states; most importantly, they lack the musical talent to provide the appropriate sonic backing.

Amusingly, it does not start out that way — ʽStomach Vs. Heartʼ, with its uppity martial punch and ironic subject matter («the material against the spiritual» and all that), even if it is not a par­ticularly great song, almost restores confidence in these guys, or, at least, seems to promise that the record is going to be a respectable sequel to Maybe You Should Drive. But then something odd happens, and the boys launch into an odd series of rather pedestrian murder ballads (ʽStraw Hat And Old Dirty Hankʼ), forcefully angry anti-bigotry rants (ʽI Knowʼ), suicidal pleads (ʽThis Is Where It Endsʼ, ʽWhen I Fallʼ), and various other raids on classic singer-songwriter territory, almost always with rather lackluster results.

What they now most frequently sound like is early R.E.M. with much less memorable melodies and blander, far less mysterious atmosphere — in other words, highly generic «college rock». They do work on their lyrics, and still find occasionally interesting ways of expressing the same millennia-old feelings, but it is not clear why anybody, outside of the regular 18-year old college rock audience spinning contemporary product in their dormitories way back in 1996, should care about these ways today. I mean, I can easily see how a song like ʽBreak Your Heartʼ could form a very intimate relationship with a young boy's spirit at the dawn of the great girl problem age, but when the not-so-young boy looks back on it fifteen years later... it's not as if they really wrote something here other than the lyrics, what with the song growing out of the standard Fifties' progression, borrowing a bit of its vocal melody from McCartney's ʽLet Me Roll Itʼ, and going for a «blue-eyed soul» atmosphere that is way beyond Page's vocal capacities.

Alas, similar observations could be made on almost every other song on here, regardless of its genre, mood, tempo, or tonality. ʽShoe Boxʼ, featured on Friends, is sort of okay, as it is the most Gordon-style of all these songs (catchy, friendly-sarcastic, and lightweight; naturally, this had to be the song that almost did not make it onto the final print of the album) — together with ʽSto­mach Vs. Heartʼ, they at least provide a credible framework for the record. The «big hit», which brought them some U.S. notoriety, was ʽThe Old Apartmentʼ, but it moves me about as much as, say, a Taylor Swift song could have — there is not a single musically interesting thing going on, and its nostalgic vibe, so firmly expressed in the lyrics, would never be evident to anybody not fluent in the language. Generic acoustic alt-rock, blah.

Thumbs down for this total failure of a record. Even the sleeve photo is (intentionally) ugly, not to mention its complete lack of ties to the inside contents. Although, come to think of it, when you do remember the underlying prank (that is, pronounce the title of the album making the same face that the boy is pulling on the cover), you do get the appropriately correct title for this pile of... oh well, never mind. Bottom line is: feel free to disagree with the judgement if you're mainly here for the words, but if you insist that the underlying music and atmosphere even begin to match their wittiness, well, «this is where it ends» for you and me.


Check "Born On A Pirate Ship" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Born On A Pirate Ship" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Ooh, a couple disagreements here!

    I do agree with the general assessment that, for a long time, this would be the weakest album they would ever do. However it is not quite a total failure and it does have its fair share of good to great tracks mixed in. The band was still looking for a direction and while they would soon find one with the next studio album (setting off their best stretch of records), that lack of purpose results in a lot of bland tunes. But some songs some off with success.

    Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank is by far the best track on the album to me. It's got a great chorus and an aggressive tone. Totally successful marriage of lyrics to music as well. I Live With It Every Day is another song I'm really fond of. I love its goofy synth bass, and its angular verses which make for a good contrast with the more flowing chorus. I Know jumps around a lot and doesn't have much of a clear hook, but I still have a good time with it. Other songs have smaller bright moments that perk my ears up as the album progresses, Call Me Calmly's staccato strings and neat bridge for instance. And Shoe Box is great power-pop, though maybe could have benefited from a more crunchy arrangement.

    But several songs are still pretty much disasters. Break Your Heart is cringe-worthy (especially the overdone bridge), and doesn't even have good lyrics. When I Fall and This Is Where It Ends both have good lyrics but are still... snoooore. And what the hell is up with the production on Just A Toy? Who thought muffling half the song was a good idea? You didn't name it as being a particular lowlight, but to me it's easily one of the worst songs the band ever did. And as much as I've been a fan of this band for a long time I completely agree with you that The Old Apartment is a terrible song with almost nothing musically interesting going for it. Totally baffles me how it became their first hit in America, and one of their signature songs.
    Jim Creggan's first major contributions to the Band are sort of OK. Spider In My Room has a really neat atmosphere and I like the idea of the song, but the atmosphere doesn't build or go anywhere and the song concept was done better 25 years earlier with Boris The Spider. In The Drink is a mediocre song, but it's made far worse by being the longest song on the album. His contributions would always be sporadic but they would still improve significantly on later albums.

    So I didn't disagree with you too much really, but I still do think there are some worthy songs to be pulled from this album. Especially Straw Hat and I Live With It Everyday. Like MYSD they're still trying to figure out what kind of band they want to be and that results in another hit and miss record, but unlike MYSD it's more miss than hit.

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