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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Grinning Streak

BARENAKED LADIES: GRINNING STREAK (2013)

1) Limits; 2) Boomerang; 3) Off His Head; 4) Gonna Walk; 5) Odds Are; 6) Keepin' It Real; 7) Give It Back To You; 8) Best Damn Friend; 9) Did I Say That Out Loud?; 10) Daydreamin'; 11) Smile; 12) Crawl.

With another heavy sigh, I have to admit that The Barenaked Ladies' second post-Page album of original material generates more or less the same impressions as its sleeve photo. To be more pre­cise, it has the very distinct feel of music conceived and executed by a bunch of morose, stern-looking, grayish-haired (var.: bald), suit-and-tie-clad office workers, blankly staring in no particu­lar direction, trying to express something that must have accumulated in their shirt-stuffed breasts and finding themselves completely unable to do it in the least interesting manner.

In other words, Grinning Streak — the title is the best thing here, since it so aptly summarizes their latest developments — proudly wrestles the laurels away from All In Good Time, offering twelve more indie-rock compositions that come and go without creating as much as a ripple. The marginal victory is possibly due to Ed Robertson now writing almost the entirety of the album — only one song goes to Kevin Hearn, and three more are co-credited to Robertson and Better Than Ezra's frontman Kevin Griffin.

On the other hand, Hearn's ʽDaydreamin'ʼ is far from his best: a bouncy soft-rock ditty with faint echoes of techno and psychedelia at the same time, it goes on for far too long on too little fuel, and fails to make proper use of Hearn's best side — tender, honest-sounding sentimentality. The idea here is probably to generate a credible «daydreaming» atmosphere, with a mix of laziness, nonchalance, fantasy, and repetitiveness, but there are no hooks to go along with this mix, and the heavy effects on Hearn's voice make it stupidly robotic rather than wistfully magical. In short, Hearn's minimal presence here is as disappointing as his maximal absence, so we probably should not lay all the blame on Robertson alone...

...as tempting as that is, because he just keeps sinking further and further into the abyss of «gene­ricity» — something like ʽBoomerangʼ, with its syncopated percussion and quiet-to-loud dyna­mics, just sounds like bad Oasis or any other old Brit-pop band who would follow the old Ben Franklin maxim of «those who try to sacrifice memorable riffs for singalong catchy choruses de­serve neither». That it happened to be the first single released from the album just goes to show how utterly directionless the band has become. (For comparison, try ABBA's song of the same name if you really need a fun, energetic pop song).

Of the three numbers co-written with Griffin, only ʽGonna Walkʼ stands out a little bit by being poppier and cutesier than the rest, with a mild martial punch, singalong harmonies, and a jovial atmosphere that provides some respite from the many shades of gray that dominate the record. ʽKeepin' It Realʼ is an exercise in blues-rock grittiness, a somewhat different twist for the Ladies and handled professionally, but, like everything else on here, in a sterile manner — including the «blazing» guitar solo at the end. Particularly awful is the album closer: ʽCrawlʼ is overstretched, overcooked, over-emoted adult contemporary, and you'd probably have to be Ed Robertson's wife, parent, or offspring (or you'd have to want to be any of these) to enjoy the song.

Perhaps if the reviews for All In Good Time had not been all that glowing — praising the band for finally trading in their clown outfits for «mature» suits and ties — Robertson might have had second thoughts about going even further in this «introspective» direction. There is nothing of­fen­sive or unintelligent, per se, in these songs about complicated relationships and personality crises: it is just one of those cases where you almost wish something were offensive or openly dumb — anything at all to break this languid, go-nowhere crust of mediocrity. Unfortunately, at this point, with Grinning Streak getting even more positive reviews from critics who seem to be completely forgetting what it used to mean to be «fun» in rock music, it does not seem likely that  Robertson will be swerving from this steady, unadventurous, concrete-laden path any time soon, so here is another thumbs down in a series that, probably, has not yet run its course.

Check "Grinning Streak" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Grinning Streak" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. I don't think it's really necessary to bring up the positive reviews band is getting lately. With All In Good Time the band officially entered the "legacy" period of their career where major music publications award artists with high praise for just continuing to exist. And like all ageing acts this will fuel a long series of mediocre records.

    Anyway, on the whole I feel Grinning Streak is ever so slightly superior to AIGT because the hooks are more plentiful. I can actually remember how nearly every song here goes. The electronic elements they sometimes mix in are a mildly neat production choice too.
    I like "Odds Are" "Gonna Walk" "Best Damn Friend" and "Limits". None of these are as good as "Summertime" or "Four Seconds" but they get my head bobbing pleasantly. The big problem with this album is pretty much the same one AIGT had though but to an even greater extent. These song, even the highlights are completely and utterly soulless. There is no meat to any of these songs. I remember the days when BNL's lyrics alone were often enough to elevate a song (and that wasn't that long ago either since their lyrical abilities were still fully on display on Snacktime). But now every line sounds like bland filler, the kind of lyric you write while searching for better words. Just cliché after cliché. Blah.
    Thankfully most of these songs are upbeat, and as has been the case for most of the band's life, upbeat is always better than the opposite. The only really slow tune is "Crawl" which is indeed awful. But at least they had the smarts to place the adult contemporary trash at the end of the album instead of opening with it this time. The choice to make most of the songs upbeat and facelessly cheery at least keeps me from getting totally bored with the proceedings.

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