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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Barenaked Ladies Are Men

BARENAKED LADIES: BARENAKED LADIES ARE MEN (2007)

1) Serendipity; 2) Something You'll Never Find; 3) One And Only; 4) Angry People; 5) Down To Earth; 6) Beauti­ful; 7) Running Out Of Ink; 8) Half A Heart; 9) Maybe Not; 10) I Can, I Will, I Do; 11) Fun & Games; 12) The New Sad; 13) Quality; 14) Another Spin; 15) What A Letdown.

The Ladies gave the green light to the release of the rest of the songs they had recor­ded during the 2005-2006 sessions so quickly that it was quite clear — the two records do not relate to each other in a «main product / outtakes & leftovers» kind of way, but are actually two equal-rights parts of one whole. Which is, really, the only way to explain that Are Men is a significant im­provement over Are Me, much to the consolation of those (like me) who were expecting to hear something even more dreadfully dull and languid than the first part.

The general difference is that Are Me focuses on the slower, «rootsier», more intimate / senti­mental part of The Ladies' joint personality, whereas Are Men concentrates on the quirkier, more upbeat power-pop part. This is not an unbreakable law — there are exceptions to the rule on both sides — but hardly a coincidence, either: faced with the perspective of sorting their large pile into two smaller piles, Page and Robertson must have settled on a «thematic» approach. Which, upon first sight, means that Are Men has a priori better chances to succeed, given that the Ladies have always tended to thrive in power-pop, not roots-rock environments.

And it does, but not quite — some of these songs do actually manage to reach the heights of Stunt / Maroon-era material, yet on the whole the album still carries the stamp of the «quantity over quality» department. For instance, sentimental acoustic soft-rock like ʽBeautifulʼ and ʽHalf A Heartʼ is the kind of generic indie material you so often hear in pretending-to-be-cool family entertainment movies that wish to ask serious questions and then answer them with cheap soapy melodrama — uninteresting melodies spiced up with «authentic» arrangements and «intelligent» vocals. Again, the vocals are the weakest parts: sentimental music cannot be effective without actual sentiments, something that neither Page nor Robertson can properly provide — you'd at least need a Paul McCartney to make this stuff work.

The upbeat material is altogether on another plane. Sometimes it almost feels as if they try too hard: ʽAngry Peopleʼ, with its falsetto woo-hoos, martial beats, and happy harp à la Stevie Won­der, strictly follows an old patented recipe for pop catchiness — but it is, after all, a song about correcting angry people by surrounding them with happy ones, so the form suits the message to a tee, and it would be silly to get irritated instead of just getting into the fun groove. As Robertson sings in ʽDown To Earthʼ (another one of those quirky Apples In Stereo-style pop-rockers that thrives on combining guitars with sci-fi synths), "some people are just all show / well, I don't mind that if the show's worth watching" — well, the Ladies themselves operate better when they are mostly show, or, at least, when their sincere attitude is covered with plenty of makeup.

For some strange reason, Are Men yielded no singles, even though at least a good third of these songs would be top-notch single material for the band. Page's ʽRunning Out Of Inkʼ would be a prime candidate, in particular — it's fast, quirky, catchy, funny, and structurally diverse, as Page goes from a comically paranoid delivery into a comically operatic mid-section and back again. ʽQualityʼ would inevitably be a hit with college audiences, as it combines the steady romantic pulse of ʽEvery Breath You Takeʼ with lyrics that subtly send up the know-it-all attitude ("my quality, biology enhanced with high technology"): the Ladies have always tended to strictly ob­serve the balance between the college punk and the college nerd, and they do have that talent for coming across as seriously educated guys without any particular showing off.

Yet another time, two of the best songs are contributed by Kevin Hearn: ʽSerendipityʼ has serious woo-potential in its echoey riff and, especially, clever vocal modulation — since he possesses the softest and sweetest voice in the entire band, Hearn is able to work some subtle magic with it that neither Page nor Robertson can conjure, and it is almost as if they recognize and respect that, by letting ʽSerendipityʼ open the album. Good move, or «Hearn the softie» could have been lost in the 16-song ocean: it certainly takes extra time and effort to uncover the similar charms of ʽAno­ther Spinʼ, where he keeps looking for his girl in different places (including Afghanistan, if only because it dissonantly rhymes with the song title) without any hope to find the right one, but in a state of complete vocal and instrumental serenity nevertheless.

I will not attempt individual descriptions / comments on all the songs — there is nothing truly ori­ginal or vehemently thought-provoking about most of them — but on the whole, this is a good listen, and although I have encountered opinions that value the first record over the second, I really have no interest in mulling and sussing and mulling and sussing over the Ladies' intro­spective side until it finally «gets to me». They have good, natural pop instincts, and they are well demonstrated — again — on Barenaked Ladies Are Men, and that is why it deserves a thumbs up, albeit a slightly less excited one than in the case of Stunt / Maroon. If anything, splitting their personalities in two just ended up as a transparent demonstration — which of the persona­lities it would be more fun to hang out with, and which one would do better if it never showed its nose out of the dormitory, not ever again.


Check "Barenaked Ladies Are Men" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Barenaked Ladies Are Men" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Big improvement over Are Me mainly due to a much better song selection. I'm still not a fan of the production style and it's their least consistant album by far thanks to numerous duds, mainly in the Robertson ballad department (some of which are even lamer than the weak tracks from Pirate Ship if you ask me). But a healthy portion of these songs are decent to great.

    I recommend looking up Steven Page's reworked version of Running Out Of Ink from his solo album A Singer Must Die. He goes even further with the Operatic approach there.

    This is far from my favourite BNL album but it can stick around. Replace some of the lamer tunes with the three or four highlights from Are Me make the album 12 tracks instead of 15 and then this whole double album fiasco could have been nicely avoided.

    It functions decently as the "proper" swan song of classic-era BNL (so to speak), though personally I think the "improper" swan song that would follow thoroughly beats it.

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