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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Maroon

BARENAKED LADIES: MAROON (2000)

1) Too Little Too Late; 2) Never Do Anything; 3) Pinch Me; 4) Go Home; 5) Falling For The First Time; 6) Conven­tioneers; 7) Sell, Sell, Sell; 8) Humor Of The Situation; 9) Baby Seat; 10) Off The Hook; 11) Helicopters; 12) To­night Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel.

Maroon is like A Day At The Races to Stunt's A Night At The Opera: a twin companion that makes a point of not offering anything radically new, but is simply there so that the previous re­cord would not feel too lonely — and there have been no countries so far that made it a capital crime to milk the same formula twice, especially since, every now and then, second time around the results may be even stronger (experience and all).

In this particular case, I would not say that Maroon «improves» on Stunt — the two are so simi­lar in style and so consistent in content that it is a matter of some very fine distinctions in taste. The important thing is that the band has lost none of the sharpness and none of the inspiration; also, the proceedings may have been influenced by keyboard player Kevin Hearn's recuperation from leukemia, as this is altogether arguably the merriest, most uplifting record by these guys ever since Gordon established them as the trendiest college clowns on the block. Except that Maroon has no «joke» songs on it whatsoever: «uplifting» does not equal «hilarious».

There is one big unresolved problem that is getting bigger and bigger: as per «the world accor­ding to the Barenaked Ladies» at this moment, it (the world) revolves almost entirely and exclu­sively around the issue of broken relationships and how to fix them. Now this is, most definitive­ly, one of the most important problems for the average college student stumbling through life and learning to learn on his / her mistakes — and is therefore guaranteed to provide fame and admira­tion to whoever tackles it with intelligence and originality, as the Ladies do. But still, the amount of «he vs. she»-themed songs, already huge on Stunt, begins to feel irritating. With a couple of exceptions that aim at more global themes (ʽSell, Sell, Sellʼ — no need to comment; the anti-war lament of ʽHelicoptersʼ), Maroon is all about Mr. Page on the couch and Dr. Robertson in the armchair, or vice versa, and this gives a fairly monotonous coating to all of the songs, no matter how many different tempos, tonalities, styles, or tributes they are based on.

Technically, most of the songs are fine, concentrating once more on the aesthetics of classic po­wer pop, but also with some «alt-rock» elements thrown in every now and then (the jiggly, syn­copated ʽNever Do Anythingʼ could just as easily be done by the likes of Avril Lavigne, even if her version probably could not have contained lines like "let's play tic tac toe, I'll play X, you can be the O"). Those who love the Ladies primarily for their ability to merge old-style electric pop riffs with contemporary sentiments will particularly enjoy ʽToo Little Too Lateʼ with its swirling merry-go-round pattern; ʽGo Homeʼ, reminiscent of the «dance-folk» vibe espoused by some of the Nuggets-era bands; ʽHumor Of The Situationʼ, where the band plays at top volume, aiming for a musical explosion (which, unfortunately, never really comes, due to the innate limitations of their skills as vocalists and arrangers); and the catchy, but somewhat lumbering ʽBaby Seatʼ.

For some reason, none of these songs were chosen for the honor of lead single — the honor went to ʽPinch Meʼ, maybe because they thought it had a more contemporary sound, with the drum loop, a rap in the chorus, and harmonies that suspiciously sound as if they were influenced by boy bands. Similarity with ʽOne Weekʼ is rather glaring, and if the song was deliberately written as a commercial follow-up, this explains where it fundamentally fails where its predecessor funda­mentally succeeded — through happy songwriter accident.

However, I am not going to pretend that Maroon is not a great album simply because it makes such serious concessions to trends and fads. The Barenaked Ladies are much too well aware of their own strengths and weaknesses to understand that «selling out» would be the death of them, anyway — who would they be going to compete with, the Backstreet Boys? Maroon is a very good, but not a great album not because there are too few songs here like ʽToo Little Too Lateʼ, but because there are too many of them: well-done and well-meaning, but not quite hitting the spot, if you know what I mean. Probably just because the music, the lyrics, and the vocals do not find the perfect way to gel — as «shallow» as it is, one ʽI Should Have Known Betterʼ is still worth an entire Maroon to me.

But let me tell you where it does gel a bit. It does gel when, on ʽHelicoptersʼ, they go for a gran­der subject and strengthen the effects with a simple, but powerful theme (doubled on violin and something else, I think). And, amazingly, it does gel at the very end — there is a hidden track here called ʽHidden Sunʼ, written and sung by the miraculously cured Kevin Hearn, and it is a gorgeously atmospheric dream-pop piano ballad that I will take over anything else on this album, since there is nothing about its sweet sentimentality that rubs me the wrong way, and even Hearn's shaky, unassured vocal is more credible than Page's.

That said, we must not forget about the mind, either, and on a purely rational basis, Maroon de­serves its rightful thumbs up — the lyrics are hard to assail, as are the band's musical tastes and creative decisions. And, for that matter, ʽTonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheelʼ is probably the silliest send-up of those country sounds since the days of the Stones' ʽDear Doctorʼ and ʽFar Away Eyesʼ, and a fine enough conclusion to the main (unhidden) body of the album to wrestle out a positive decision at the end of the day. Anyway, it's all really a matter of owning the key to this particular aesthetics — I seem to have lost mine somewhere along the way, or maybe I never had one in the first place, but you, the reader, are always welcome to try. (But it does se­riously help if you're 19 years old and enrolled in Berkeley or something).


Check "Maroon" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Maroon" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Their best post-Gordon album IMO (though that's definitely not a consensus, I've seen just as many folks reward that title to Everything To Everyone, Stunt, or even Snacktime as I have Maroon). Its highs reach just as high as those on Stunt and it's one of the very few BNL albums without a single dud in sight. We just get great song after great song. The first half of the album especially feels like that because it's almost completely upbeat. Pitch Me has mellow moments but for the most part it's power-pop nirvana until you hit Conven­tioneers. Though I do acknowledge that this approach does result in one of BNL's least diverse albums, and some of it could sound a little samey to some people.

    Pinch Me may be a sequel to One Week but it is a very successful one, tweaking the formula of pop-song-with-silly-rapping-in-it plenty to serve quite a very different purpose than One Week. One Week could easily qualify in the novelty category, whereas Pinch Me is more serious and actually about something more significant than pop-culture references. It's also given far more time to develop and flesh itself out. What it lacks in the pure joy of spontaneity, it gains in rock-solid songwriting and arranging.

    Maroon still has pretty fun lyrics through and through, but very little here qualifies as being overly silly or jokey, it's the perfect balance really. And the more serious songs like Conven­tioneers and Helicopters come off quite well.

    Kevin Hearn's first contribution to the band might also be his very best. A lot of what was so great about When You Dream applies to it as well, but Kevin's humble vocal and pure honestly (he wrote it on his might-have-been deathbed) elevate it even higher to me. It also functions tremendously as the coda to the album. Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel is the surreal moment near death when you can't believe what is happening to you, but gradually start to make sense of it and you mind is racing a mile a minute. Hidden Sun is finally coming to peace with the circumstances and gracefully floating towards the light. A tremendous pairing.

    Baby Seat isn't among their greatest collaborations ever but it's a solid sendoff for the Duffy/Page songwriting duo which wouldn't be returning for another BNL album (though it would continue to bear fruit on Page's two solo albums).

    Sell Sell Sell is a delightful showbiz sendup. Go Home may or may not have the hookiest melody on the record, but it's definitely the bounciest. Humour Of The Situation was once my favourite track. It's not anymore but there's something to be said for being the most upbeat track on an already very upbeat album.

    So yeah, I like this album a lot. Very consistent songwriting, and also by far their biggest success at being a serious rock band. I will cop to a little extra nostalgia here since the band's tour for this album was the first big rock concert I ever saw and I still remember having a great time at the show today.

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