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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Stunt

BARENAKED LADIES: STUNT (1998)

1) One Week; 2) It's All Been Done; 3) Light Up My Room; 4) I'll Be That Girl; 5) Leave; 6) Alcohol; 7) Call And Answer; 8) In The Car; 9) Never Is Enough; 10) Who Needs Sleep?; 11) Told You So; 12) Some Fantastic; 13) When You Dream.

Stunt indeed — with the surprising success of ʽOne Weekʼ as the album's lead single, Barenaked Ladies managed to pull the stunt of becoming major celebrities almost overnight. Apparently, all it had to take was for Robertson to start rapping: channelling the band's trademark loquacity and humor into a hip-hop riverbed proved to be the key, even if the actual music never strays away from the regular pop-rock format. The song's subject matter (an ironic look at stupid breakups over nothing) probably did not matter as much as the rapid stream of cultural references — every­thing from Snickers to Sailor Moon to Harrison Ford to Kurosawa — but overall, the whole thing just sounds funny. Heck, it is funny — reinstating the band's «smart college clowns» image on a more sophisticated level than that of ʽBe My Yoko Onoʼ.

The rest of the album, fortunately, drops the rap angle (one stab is okay, more than one could be interpreted as too much groveling before the altar of the Beastie Boys and such), but continues to unfurl the general approach. The tempos are faster, the moods are lighter, the lyrical matters are quirkier, the hooks are sharper — the somber mood that permeated the previous two albums is all but gone, so that even the slowest and most sentimental number (ʽCall And Answerʼ) is an opti­mistic song of future reconcilement instead of a bleak account of separation. And although, from time to time, they do walk that fine line that separates clever satire from gimmicky novelty tunes (I still cannot quite make up my mind about ʽOne Weekʼ, for that matter), Stunt on the whole does not produce the impression of a «clownish» album.

For instance, already the second single, ʽIt's All Been Doneʼ, is just a well-written power-pop song, with jangly folk-rock guitars, Beatlesque ooh la-la-las and whoah-whoahs, and lyrics that complain about the repetitive nature of intimate relationships without any particularly smartass verbal flourishes. If it weren't for the vocals — one more pretext to repeat that Page and Robert­son always needed a much more accomplished and versatile vocalist in the band — it might have been a late masterpiece of the genre.

On the other hand, the third single, ʽAlcoholʼ, does derive much of its charm from the lyrics, which certainly paint a much more likable portrait of the substance than the Kinks song with the same title. What used to be «demon Alcohol» now becomes "alcohol, your songs resolve like my life never will" and, despite the clearly tongue-in-cheek attitude, could have easily been picked up by some promotional campaign (maybe even has?). If the song's basic melody leaves something to be desired, they compensate for it by loading the track with pianos, violins, and electronics — to demonstrate, no doubt, the sheer amount of sights and colors that alcohol brings into one's life. One can only guess at the popularity ranking of the song on the college circuit when it came out.

Genre diversity is displayed throughout: ʽIn The Carʼ appropriates an old surf-rock pattern; ʽNe­ver Is Enoughʼ has an organ part that almost sounds lifted from an old Bob Dylan number; ʽTold You Soʼ carries on the country-pop vibe with a whiff of R.E.M. drea­miness (not one of my favourites, it does sound a bit like an outtake from the Pirate Ship sessions); ʽSome Fantasticʼ swerves into bossa nova territory. As usual, though, the album does not feel diverse, because the personality of the Ladies remains the same throughout — it just helps avoid the impression of «one long song separated by pauses».

It all does make me, wonder, though: why does my personal favourite song on here happen to be the least typical of the album? ʽWhen You Dreamʼ is formally placed at the end as a good night lullaby, to smoothe out the edges, but even though I generally do not care much for the heart-on-sleeve side of the Ladies, this particular tender waltz (in which one can hear distant echoes of John Sebastian and the Lovin' Spoonful, among other things) strikes such a fine balance between sentimentality and intelligence that I would place it right next to John Lennon's ʽBeautiful Boyʼ in a personal rating of «toddler tunes». At the very least, it is hard to imagine it not finding the proper resonance in the heart of each and every inexperienced parent, provided that parent is advanced enough to own a copy of Stunt.

In other words, ʽWhen You Dreamʼ symbolizes the ultimate victory of emotion over reason, but that does not annul the effects of the other songs — on the whole, this is not quite the return to the level of Gordon that one might have hoped for, but it is a certified «return to making sense», with the band completely in their element. Lively, fun, smart, diverse within reasonable limits — not genius, just rock-solid quality, liberally sprinkled with charisma. Thumbs up.


Check "Stunt" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Great record. They figure out how to strike a balance between the fun stuff and the serious stuff and actually make the serious stuff pretty good. With the exception of Told You So, which I find pretty bland, every track has something commendable about it.

    It's easy to see why One Week was such a huge hit, the hooks come quick and fast and the rapping is a ton of fun and both verses are filled with weird lines that get lodged in your head just as frequently as the chorus. The rapping thing wasn't brand new here. The band had been incorporating improvised songs, sketches, and rapping into their live shows for years, but they did capture lightning in a bottle with this one. They would repeat the formula on subsequent albums to better effect (Pinch Me, which only sort of counts and goes in a totally different direction with it) or worse (Another Postcard, which is 10x the gimmicky novelty song that some accuse One Week of being, though it's still catchy), but it wouldn't ever be as fresh as One Week still sounds.

    I happen to think Page is quite the respectable vocalist in his own right so It's All Been Done totally makes power-pop classic status for me. Hooks all over the place and complete with some Woo Hoo Hoo's for the audience to sing along with.

    Some of the other tracks in the middle are kind of dwarfed in comparison to the big singles, but Light Up My Room, I'll Be That Girl, Leave, and In the Car all reveal themselves to be pretty respectable tunes after a while. Again the benefit of good interesting lyrics helps make these songs stick just that tiny bit more with me. I do love me some Alcohol though. Coming in the midst of all those midtempo numbers, something relentlessly upbeat gives just the right injection of energy into the album. Call and Answer could have easily turned into another dirge like so much of Born On A Pirate Ship, but instead it may be the best straightforward ballad they'd ever do. Quite pretty and uplifting. I especially like the bridge.

    I also happen to think that (with the exception of Told You So) this album ends very strongly. You mentioned When You Dream, which I wasn't expecting you to like as much as you did, but I'm certainly glad for it because it is an absolutely lovely song. And one that most people tend to miss, with it being at the end and all. Some Fantastic is a personal favourite of mine, I'm a sucker for a non-love duet, and again the lyrics bring a smile to my face every time. Never Is Enough and Who Needs Sleep were my favourite tunes from this album when it came out for some reason, and while that's not the case anymore I'm still quite fond of them, especially since now I've been through some life experiences and can actually relate to the lyrics! Cheery bouncy pop tunes both.

    So yep, I like this album a lot. Some of their best songs ever and almost no duds among the lesser stuff. Production is slick and punchy but never sterile. It may not be my favourite album of theirs all things considered (I'd rank it fourth I think), but I have no issue whatsoever with its enormous success making it the only BNL album most of America is familiar with.

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