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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Maybe You Should Drive

BARENAKED LADIES: MAYBE YOU SHOULD DRIVE (1994)

1) Jane; 2) Intermittently; 3) These Apples; 4) You Will Be Waiting; 5) A; 6) Everything Old Is New Again; 7) Al­ternative Girlfriend; 8) Am I The Only One?; 9) Little Tiny Song; 10) Life, In A Nutshell; 11) The Wrong Man Was Convicted; 12) Great Provider.

I cannot imagine the Barenaked Ladies' second album not being a relative disappointment for everybody who was, one way or other, bowled over by their first one. But apparently, at this point the band was worried about its image — neither Page nor Robertson wanted to be regarded as a one-dimensional goofy comic act, and agreed upon not just toning down, but almost completely freezing their sense of college humor. Consequently, Maybe You Should Drive is still a relative­ly lightweight, but completely serious chapter in Barenaked Ladies history... in which the prota­gonists demand to be recognized as insightful singer-songwriters, providing useful spiritual guide­lines for the restless youth masses of 1994.

The changes actually go beyond simply saying temporary goodbye to the lyrical and musical jokes. There is also a strict limit imposed on the innumerable pop culture references of yesterday, and, worse of all, there is a clear increase of «alt-rock» elements — more electric guitar, more Pearl Jam rhythmics at the expense of vaudeville, in short, a more generally-accessible and al­together-predictable type of sound that moves one step closer to «selling out», or, at least, finding an audience outside of the smarmy college rock circuit that is generally in on the joke. The gam­ble paid off somewhat well, putting them on the lower ranges of the US charts without compro­mising any integrity. But the question of «what exactly is it that these guys have to offer?», which would sound rather silly and condescending when applied to Gordon, seems to become far more valid upon the first listens to Drive.

After all, the Barenaked Ladies do not set any particularly high standards for either singing, play­ing, or writing any fabulous melodies. It is only the combination of all these ingredients — plus the humorous and intelligent atmosphere — that elevates them to something of a less instantane­ously forgettable status. And although the intelligence is still there, it is not exactly clear why we really need another record chockfull of songs about various types of male-female relationships (usually tense, flawed, or unsuccessful, since these guys are not about to get accused of sissyism: ʽI Want To Hold Your Handʼ is definitely not in the Barenaked Ladies' idiom).

Several listens into the album, provided one does have the time and patience, the cohesiveness starts to come out and the atmosphere slowly begins to work out some charm. The songs may not be all that involving or innovative, but they are inoffensive, clever, and mildly catchy, reflecting a certain «average brainy Joe» spirit — no pretense at universal importance, no pomp, no self-in­dulgence or narcissism, just one little life-sketch after another. Yes, just one of those little records made for a (quoting Bob) "when you're tired of yourself and all of your creations" kind of sce­nario — in between the loudness and ecstasy of Brit-pop and Seattle-grunge, there might be a brief moment for the humble social commentary of Page and Robertson.

The record does not really get much better or more attention-pulling than on ʽJaneʼ — opening the album with a folksy acoustic flourish, a steady toe-tapping tempo, and some melancholy pop harmonies. The subject matter? Uh... trying to date the girl at the local beauty parlor (without success, naturally). The hook? Nothing, really, but the strange «naturalness» of the song — the way it might seduce the listener by having nothing in particular to its name. A pleasant trifle that, with its very existence, reminds us that about half of our life consists of such pleasant trifles. This is the secret of the Barenaked Ladies that all mediocre songwriters should keep in mind — if you have nothing to write about, write about nothing, and you might just have something.

Elsewhere, the boys subconsciously invoke the classic old spirit of the Great American Songbook and how, at its best (and there have been plenty instances of the worst), it used to exude this non­chalant elegance, made outstanding with extra verbosity. ʽIntermittentlyʼ is one such case ("some­one somewhere has unglued our epoxy / and now I'm kissing you by proxy" may be one of the most bizarre ways to express the idea of separation used in a pop song) — feather-light gigolo confession transplanted to a new age: "when immeasurably / turns to intermittently / there's no use in going on / except for fear of being wrong". Continuing a tradition initiated on the previous album, the band is said to have recorded this one naked in the studio — if this somehow means that ʽIntermittentlyʼ is their most personal statement on the album, they must be fairly nasty people in real life. Then again, most people seem to be, so...

Of course, even once you have grown accustomed to the album, it can still get fairly monotonous as the endless who's-sorry-now types of songs replace each other — and I am not sure, for in­stance, if the idea of sequencing them so that ʽThe Wrong Man Was Convictedʼ, the longest, slowest, bluest, dreariest number is placed almost at the end, even if the song itself is hardly guil­ty of anything, being written neither better nor worse than anything else on here.

If you are only interested in the bouncy, happy, catchy side of the Ladies, this album would only work as a short EP — consisting of, let's say, ʽThese Applesʼ (Robertson's falsetto that caps off each chorus is kinda cute), ʽAʼ (fabulous lyrics about the incidentally first letter of the alphabet, but not a particularly interesting melodic structure), ʽEverything Old Is New Againʼ (Ray Davies could have appreciated that one and its lazy-friendly punch), and ʽLife In A Nutshellʼ, the only more or less fast number on the album with scandalous lyrics ("when she was three, her Barbies always did it on the first date" — where are you, Tipper?). However, even these four may be singled out simply for possessing more sheer energy than the others — not for being extra funny or extra melodic or extra anything else.

In the end, although the review has surprisingly turned out more positive than I originally thought it would be, I cannot really dispense a thumbs up. The songs are nice and clever, but in the end, the album simply tries way too hard to convey the message of «hey guys, we can do so much more than Gordon showed us capable of», and I am still not too sure that this message is a cor­rect one. If I do ever get sure, watch out for those thumbs. But as it is now — maybe you shouldn't drive, after all, because this record is just a bit too sober for my tastes.


Check "Maybe You Should Drive" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Maybe You Should Drive" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting one. The proverbial "sophomore slump," but not in the ways most people might expect. Many would think they'd follow-up their successful debut with simply a pale imitation, but MYSD attempts to break new ground for the band and show that they were capable of things beyond just silly "Be My Yoko Ono" tunes. I believe that in the long run they were able to mostly achieve that, but things are a little rough here. A large part of that is due to some of the behind the scenes going-ons at the time. Steven Page and Ed Robertson had something of a falling out and temporarily stopped collaborating on their songwriting. Andy Creeggan also wanted out of the band prior to this album, but was convinced to stay, which may have caused more strife.
    Perhaps the biggest factor is that this album is where Steven Page's other long-time songwriting partnership, with Stephen Duffy of The Lilac Time, began. While down the road, only one or two tracks per album might be one of these collaborations, perhaps due to the lack of collaboration with Robertson a third of this album is a result of the Page/Duffy partnership.
    If you're familiar with Duffy's music (which is excellent by the way everybody should have some Lilac Time in their collection), you'll notice how those songs largely resemble his work more than they do BNL's established style. "Jane" in particular could have come straight off of The Lilac Time's album Astronauts. So there is definitely a bit of an identity crisis going on.
    Duffy is a great songwriter and I think his songs tended to be highlights on BNL's albums but I could definitely see how many people could feel that they (at least on this album) don't fit in with what they think they band should be. Personally I feel "Jane" and "Everything Old Is New Again" are the two best tracks on the album. The latter in particular being the album's big overlooked gem, I adore how it gently builds from its verse through its chorus.
    Elsewhere, the lyrics continue to be a big strong point for the band. "A" being the biggest highlight but most other tracks containing some excellent little couplets as well.
    It's a hit and miss record from a band that was in search of direction and didn't want to be pigeon-holed as simply a goofy-fun-time-band. It's probably the BNL album that's grown on me the most over the years, but I've had this album since it was released so I've had likely had far more time to mull over its ins and outs than most people.

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