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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: All In Good Time

BARENAKED LADIES: ALL IN GOOD TIME (2010)

1) You Run Away; 2) Summertime; 3) Another Heartbreak; 4) Four Seconds; 5) On The Lookout; 6) Ordinary; 7) I Have Learned; 8) Every Subway Car; 9) Jerome; 10) How Long; 11) Golden Boy; 12) I Saw It; 13) The Love We're In; 14) Watching The Northern Lights.

Did the departure of Steven Page make any difference? Frankly speaking, Page and Robertson seem to have always been very much alike in form and spirit — nothing like a John/Paul or a Mick/Keith dichotomy here, which was really a weakness for The Ladies: you had to be a serious fan to understand the difference in seasoning that each of the two brought to the table. If any­thing, it was Kevin Hearn who used to be responsible for a differently colored streak, that of instantly likeable innocent sentimentality, and he was the one that didn't quit.

In short, the loss of Page could be expected to bring about a slight drop in quality control, at worst. Instead, it brought about the worst that could ever have happened — «MATURITY», as some of the critics called it, almost happy to notice that, finally, the Barenaked Ladies have shed off their goofy, oddball image, stopped pranking around like overgrown kids, and started writing and recording really serious, responsible, intelligent material that would probably help their fan­base mature and become serious and responsible as well.

Unfortunately, critics tend to have short memories — and it's hard to blame them, given the ever-growing waves of new artistic material engulfing them every day — so their basis for comparison must have been (a) the latest of the Ladies' oeuvres, which was Snacktime!; (b) ʽOne Weekʼ; and (c) maybe some of the earliest goof-off songs like ʽBe My Yoko Onoʼ, because the first cut is the deepest and suchlike. What they did not remember, as it seems, is that the Ladies' first concentra­ted attempt at achieving serious maturity was already on their very second album, and that, since then, the general tendency was rather predictable: the more serious they got, the more tedious and generic their records tended to sound (Born On A Pirate Ship? Barenaked Ladies Are Me?) — the more they indulged in their prankish side, the more smart and sympathetic they managed to come out (Stunt / Maroon, Barenaked Ladies Are Men).

My confession is as follows: as I reached the middle of ʽYou Run Awayʼ, I was almost ready to cry — not because the song was so emotionally moving, but because it was already more or less obvious how miserable my next fifty minutes would become. The song is not particularly awful or anti-melodic or anything: it simply bears the thickest, densest stamp of «generic indie» to ever come from these guys. It sounds like a perfect soundtrack element to a Nora Ephron movie — echoey, soul-probing pianos, confessional, slightly trembling vocals, gradual build-up towards a rock guitar explosion, the works. It is something that would be completely natural for a prover­bially mediocre outfit like the Dave Matthews Band. It is something I have no interest whatsoever in hearing from The Barenaked Ladies, and do not, for the life of me, understand why should anybody else. And this is only just the beginning.

In Robertson's defense, I must say that the heavy riff-rockers on the album do not usually produce the same feeling of hollowness and fakeness. ʽSummertimeʼ starts out unimpressively, but gets better as the power-pop elements start coming through; the pissed-off rant ʽI Have Learnedʼ is acceptable alt-rock, stuck somewhere in between Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette in spirit, but with classier production (and in the Ladies' case, «classier» always means «closer in form to the band's garage / glam sources of inspiration»). The fake-o-meter usually starts convulsing on the balladeering front — ʽOrdinaryʼ, ʽThe Love We're Inʼ, all that stuff. But this does not mean that the heavy riff-rockers will want to continue to keep you company once the album is over — the riffs themselves don't have anything particularly unusual or stunning about them.

In disasters like these, you can usually count on Kevin Hearn to come in with something idiosyn­cratic, but not this time. ʽAnother Heartbreakʼ has a pretty vocal part (I continue to insist that Kevin has always been the most expressive vocalist of the bunch), but the song quickly descends into clichéd distorted indie-rock. ʽJeromeʼ is a somewhat visionary landscape, a melancholy tri­bute to the departed Old West that somehow ends up cluttered with too much percussion. And ʽWatching The Northern Lightsʼ is an atmospheric conclusion to the album that matches its title rather well — the repetitive, reverb-delay-filled arrangement and trance-inducing vocals really create the impression of lying on one's back and watching them Northern Lights. But, once again, this sort of lazy ambience is simply not what one expects from this kind of band. They will not be stealing any bread off of Enya's plate, anyway, so why bother?

In the middle of all this, there is exactly 1 (one) «goof-off» number on the entire record: ʽFour Secondsʼ is an absurdist vaudeville number that sounds like Tom Waits adapted for toddlers (an outtake from Snacktime!, perhaps?). Its uniqueness works well in terms of memorability, but it can hardly hope to turn the tide, surrounded by all that run-of-the-mill alt-rock stuff — in fact, it only makes matters worse, reminding of the true call of the Ladies. That true call is to play the smart, sarcastic, snappy fool, not to try and turn into a «guitar rock band with soul», a market niche where competition is hot and the Ladies are not welcome at all. Thumbs down.

Check "All In Good Time" (CD) on Amazon
Check "All In Good Time" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Ugh! What a mess. Page leaving left the band in a sorry state. It seemed at first like it could have been fine. He rarely played an instrument so the instrumental side of the band was still intact and all the other guys sung and wrote songs. Page was barely on Snacktime and that album was great, so what should be different here?

    Well unfortunately the rest of the band decided this was a perfect time to fully enter middle age. And with that we get plenty of midtempo ballads and songs with only the barest shred of melody. And they don't exactly try and hide it with them all displaying stern black and white faces on the front cover and everything. And it continues with the first single and opening track "You Run Away" which is an absolutely terrible dirge of adult contemporary slop. I absolutely despised it the first time I heard it. Possibly their worst song to date. Second single "Every Subway Car" is barely any better. Just utterly lacking everything I ever liked about the band.

    The middle of the album just sounds like one bland Are Me out-take after another. Nothing about "I Have Learned" "Ordinary" (now there's an apt title) "Hang Your Head" "Golden Boy" "How Long" or "The Love We're In" sticks with you or invites relistening. The upbeat tunes rock somewhat convincingly, but don't go an inch beyond that. Everything else is just the sound of a band flat-lining.

    One positive development is that without Page present Hearn and Creeggan get to make more contributions. Unfortunately Hearn normally contributes mellow tunes to the band's catalogue however so his contributions can't help but mush in amongst Roberston's tunes. And the uncreative arrangements don't do his songs many favours even if they're marginally better than Robertson's ballads.

    Creeggan's "I Saw It" isn't much better than most of the rest of the album, but I quite like "Out On The Lookout" which has some creative wah-wah guitar guitar touches and a pretty (if derivative) chorus melody. That song can stick around.

    "4 Seconds" is another tune that can stick around. One of the only moments that feels like the old BNL, and while it doesn't have much in the way of a super brilliant hook to it, it is quite fun and I like the minor electronic elements that they bring into the mix (which would increase further on the next album). But my pick for the album's best song is *by far* "Summertime". That is the exact kind of song a "mature" Barenaked Ladies should be able to produce on the regular. It's not overly silly but retains the band's sense of joy and creativity. Each section is solidly well written and arranged, it rocks decently but it also has plenty of the power-pop sensibility that the band has proved works so well for them. And even though it plays on some of the band's past strengths it doesn't sound like a retread on any of their past tunes. As a result it sounds fresh (or at least, fresher than the rest of the album). It has become one of my favourite BNL songs even if it's stuck on their worst album to date.

    In related news Steven Page's solo album Page One, which was released only a few months after All In Good Time, is quite good and makes me wonder where the true talent in the band was lying all this time. If you have any plans for a BNL addenda at the very least Page One would be a fine choice for it since it embodies the spirit of BNL far better than All In Good Time ever does.

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