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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Gordon

BARENAKED LADIES: GORDON (1992)

1) Hello City; 2) Enid; 3) Grade 9; 4) Brian Wilson; 5) Be My Yoko Ono; 6) Wrap Your Arms Around Me; 7) What A Good Boy; 8) The King Of Bedside Manor; 9) Box Set; 10) I Love You; 11) New Kid (On The Block); 12) Blame It On Me; 13) The Flag; 14) If I Had $1000000; 15) Crazy.

Leave it to a bunch of ugly-looking Canadian nerds (some of them of a predictably Jewish origin, too) to form a band called «Barenaked Ladies» — surely you would not expect a bunch of real barenaked ladies to call themselves that? No, of course not; the name should inevitably prepare us for a meeting with Steven Jay Page, a plump, curly-haired, bespectacled chump that generally looks like your local math professor; and Lloyd Edward Elwyn Robertson, a rough-built, highly masculine figure that generally looks like your local football coach. For some reason, instead of heeding nature's call, both guys sing and play guitar, keyboards, and cowbell — and write songs, some of which are funny and some of which aren't, but all of which ultimately sound like... like they might be giants, but they prefer to be barenaked ladies.

In other words, please welcome the quintessential «college rock for pop culture buffs» band of the 1990s. Although Page and Robertson had already released a couple of «semi-official» tapes prior to Gordon (starting with Buck Naked as early as 1989), most of the good stuff from these recordings was redone once they landed a proper contract with Sire Records — and since they had been honing their skills for about four years already, Gordon runs for almost an hour with a surprisingly scarce amount of filler (that is, for those who do not consider everything that Bare­naked Ladies ever did the encyclopaedic equivalent of filler — a position that has its fair share of defendants and one which I acknowledge, but respectfully disagree with).

The rest of the band formally includes brothers Jim and Andy Creeggan, on bass and keyboards respectively, and drummer Tyler Stewart, but there is a whole host of friends, relatives, syco­phants, and innocent bystanders credited on the album as well — a little surprising, actually, because Gordon never aims at a wall-of-sound impression; on the contrary, most of the songs show a singer-songwriterish nature, with acoustic guitars as the primary sound-carrier (some­times in the guise of a small jazz combo) and the singers (more often Page, less often Robertson) ten­der­ly hugging the mikes so you can assess all the minor imperfections in their work while at the same time forming a subconscious friendly bond with the guys.

For formal technical reasons, Barenaked Ladies have always been classified as «indie», yet the sound of Gordon owes very little, if anything, to classic «indie» influences — the main inspira­tion for Page and Robertson comes from the direction of light jazz, bossa nova, music hall, and, only very occasionally, from barebones indie pillars like Nick Drake or John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. That is, they make one more retro-step compared to the already past-oriented style of They Might Be Giants, and by digging deep into hilariously «irrelevant» brands of music, only endear themselves further to roaming bands of overweight slaves of used vinyl, bright-colored T-shirts, Star Trek, and pizza stains on the desktop keyboard.

The actual songs are, of course, lovable for their subject matter, atmosphere, spirit, humor, and sonic texture rather than for any awesome melodic insights — similar to Randy Newman, who must have been the real big idol for these guys, even though his music was never that closely tied to the high school / college circuit. Page and Robertson certainly know what a catchy pop hook is, and work on their choruses as carefully as they are capable of, but this here is a case where words really matter, if one wants to understand what all the fuss is about, and not get too irritated at the «look-at-us we're-so-stylishly-retro» attitude.

Separating the songs into highlights and «the rest» is pretty difficult, because the mind tends to make into «highlights» those songs that have the biggest verbal shock quotient. ʽHello Cityʼ, for instance, opens the album with an unexpected chorus of "hello city, you've found an enemy in me" even as one realizes that Barenaked Ladies are the quintessential city band, and would just quickly lay down and die in any other environment. ʽBrian Wilsonʼ and ʽBe My Yoko Onoʼ are placed back-to-back in an unforgettable duo of pop icon analyses — Brian Wilson himself actu­ally liked his song, enough to include it in his own setlist (you can hear a brief snippet on the Live At The Roxy album), but I am not so sure about Yoko; she might have had a tougher time appreciating a chorus like "You can be my Yoko Ono, you can follow me wherever I go".

Then there's ʽBox Setʼ, to the Latin rhythms of which you can shake your proverbial ass while admiring the cruel lambasting of the average mediocre artist receiving unwarranted promotion ("disc six — a dance remix, so I can catch the latest trend, and it'll make you scratch your head and wonder where my taste went"); and the ska-influenced ʽGrade 9ʼ, a potential personal anthem for way more people than we know ("I went out for the football team to prove that I'm a man / I guess I shouldn't tell them that I like Duran Duran"). And, of course, the band's calling card — the soft folksy roll of ʽIf I Had A Million Dollarsʼ, culminating in a most unpredictable lyrical apodosis that only matters after four and a half minutes' waiting time.

Every once and while, though, the songwriters get more serious and soulful, saving on humor and trying on the Big Thinker's hat — for instance, ʽWhat A Good Boyʼ comments on the art of social hypocrisy; ʽBlame It On Meʼ comments on the art of getting out of strained relationships (but even here, they cannot avoid the temptation of throwing on smarty-punny lines like ʽI wax poetic as you're waxing your legsʼ); and ʽThe Flagʼ tries to shift the mood from comedy to morose me­lancholia, with a melody vaguely reminiscent of ʽWorking Class Heroʼ and lyrics that could have just as well be influenced by watching Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage rather than the more predictable Wrath Of Khan (as mentioned in ʽGrade 9ʼ).

These tunes really put people on different sides of the fence — should Barenaked Ladies, with their general fluffiness, limited instrumental skills, and college humor, be allowed to make se­ri­ous social statements, or should they just stick to their Seinfeldian schtick? Personally, I would not grieve much if the «darker» sides of the Ladies were removed from Gordon, but then, on the other hand, I cannot deny that Page and Robertson have more talent than it usually takes to keep alive a «novelty band», and that even the novelty numbers, once the instantaneous laughs are over, actually offer genuine — and quite serious — insights into many of the factors that dominated youth culture in the early 1990s (and still dominate much of it today).

So, overall, I would be ready to accept the album as a whole — and give it an unflinching thumbs up. There is certainly much more going on here than just goofing off, in the good old tradition that goes all the way back to Sparks, and it all sounds just fine: the instrumental melo­dies may be nothing to write home about (although some of the acoustic guitar solos are impres­sively speedy, and fun, too), but the light, tasteful backing does just exactly what it is supposed to do: provide a mood-wise compatible «so-out-of-style» cocoon for the «so-out-of-style» prota­gonists of the band's lyrics. The real bad news is that it is all going to sound tremendously dated ten years from now (some of it already sounds quite dated as of 2013, when I am writing this assessment), but then I guess that even ten years from now, there will be out-of-time nerds feast­ing on Wrath Of Khan and dusting off old vinyl preserves of Milli Vanilli — so who'd be willing to openly claim, under pain of death, that with Gordon, Barenaked Ladies have not created a sarcastic, intellectual, deep-penetrating masterpiece for ages to come? Think twice before you do.


Check "Gordon" (MP3) on Amazon

3 comments:

  1. I had no idea you'd be getting to this band! For quite arbitrary and nostalgic reasons, they are one of my personal favorites. Can't wait for your further analysis and insights! I'm interested to hear your opinion on Maroon, which has an odd relationship between its humor and seriousness and is my pick for their best album.

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  2. Love the Barenaked Ladies. They were the first band I ever liked, and their debut was the first record I ever loved.
    The They Might Be Giants influence is pretty clear but I think BNL does have a bit more instrumental prowess which makes their of their genre exercises feel more authentic. They can also totally pull off serious which TMBG just can't do (though their upbeat and fun tunes still usually have a higher success rate).
    Funny you say this album feels a little dated, because it totally doesn't feel like that to me at all. Though maybe that's just because I've heard it so many times.
    Looking forward to the rest of their discography! Many of their records can be hit and miss but they always tend to stick a couple hidden gems in whene you least expect it.

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  3. Therewas a quirky folk band thing in Canada at the time, among which Moxy Früvous and Crash Test Dummies are other highlights, but BNL will always be my favorite! Next to TMBG, of course.

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