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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: Snacktime!

BARENAKED LADIES: SNACKTIME! (2008)

1) 7 8 9; 2) The Ninjas; 3) Pollywog In A Bog; 4) Raisins; 5) Eraser; 6) I Can Sing; 7) Louis Loon; 8) Food Party; 9) The Canadian Snacktime Trilogy: 1. Snacktime; 10) The Canadian Snacktime Trilogy: 2. Popcorn; 11) The Canadian Snacktime Trilogy: 3. Vegetable Town; 12) Drawing; 13) Humungous Tree; 14) My Big Sister; 15) Allergies; 16) I Don't Like; 17) What A Wild Tune; 18) Bad Day; 19) Things; 20) Curious; 21) A Word For That; 22) Wishing; 23) Crazy ABC's; 24) Here Come The Geese.

«Children's albums» recorded by adult artists more often than not turn out to be fakes — a good excuse for the artist to engage in fluffy silliness while at the same time churning out a product that most children would be, well, too child-like to properly understand and enjoy. In this respect, the Barenaked Ladies are no exception: while I do know personally a small handful of children that would probably enjoy Snacktime! and maybe even get addicted to it, most would probably find half of the record too boring, and the other half too befuddling (not to mention that there are a bit too many references to the Ladies' own childhood — I mean, Grease 2? Come on!). Adult fans of the Ladies, on the other hand, may react to the record just the way a Beatles fan reacts to ʽAll Together Nowʼ, ʽHer Majestyʼ, and ʽWild Honey Pieʼ — with a mix of mild external condescension and subtle internal amusement / excitement.

The idea of making a record specially for the children came from Kevin Hearn, who is respon­sible not only for an unusually huge percentage of the songs, but also for the artwork in the com­panion book. Robertson was in on the idea, but Page was not — he is credited for only five out of twenty-four numbers, and has since admitted that he was simply «along for the ride»; supposedly, his alienation from the affair was one of the factors that influenced his subsequent departure. It is interesting that one of the most «serious» numbers on the record — ʽBad Dayʼ, an introspective acoustic ballad that would have easily fit on any of their «adult» albums — is credited exclusive­ly to Page. Apparently, that was his little act of sabotage for the concept.

That said, as an adult who can still channel certain childhood memories and feelings, I find my­self along for the ride, too. The quirky, goofy side of the Ladies is not just activated with this pro­ject — it is put in overdrive, almost as if everything that they were holding back ever since it was decided that they should be «serious artists», not a comic act, suddenly broke through the wall and exploded it, as in the finale of a Roger Waters show. The twenty-four tracks in question run slightly less than an hour, with ideas bounced off each other in momentary splashes, and almost everything works — hilarious lyrics, replete with puns, sarcastic jabs at popular culture, and oc­casional edutainment value, set to simple, but catchy kiddie pop melodies.

The base reference point here is «wordplay» — already the opening number, ʽ7 8 9ʼ, illustrates that well enough ("why seven ate nine, nobody knows"), but the peak is reached on one of the last numbers: ʽCrazy ABC'sʼ pokes Bernard Shaw-esque fun at the peculiarities of English spelling and, along the way, introduces the listener, young and old, to words like ʽbdelliumʼ, ʽfohnʼ, and ʽqatʼ, knowledge of which is essential for survival in the Barenaked Ladies' world. (ʽZʼ is, of course, for ʽZed Zed Topʼ, whose music is also briefly referenced in the tune).

Other topics involve ninjas ("they speak Japanese, they do whatever they please and sometimes they vacation in Ireland"), raisins ("raisins come from grapes, I come from apes" — nice subtle anti-creationism indoctrination for the kiddies out there), food (ʽThe Canadian Snacktime Tri­logyʼ has a host of musicians, including Geddy Lee and Gordon Lightfoot, and their children lis­ting their favorite snacks), pencils, allergies, curiosities, wishes, in short, pretty much every single topic that an adult would like his kid to be interested in when his kid is only interested in smart­phones and video games — predictably enough, these are the exact subjects that never crop up in Snacktime!, being way too vulgar to fit in the perspective of Hearn's and Robertson's creative fantasy, stuck somewhere midway in between Lewis Carroll and Alan Milne.

Musically, Snacktime! mostly sounds like a typical pop-oriented Ladies album — lively acoustic strum (ʽNinjasʼ), thick power-pop riffs (ʽWishingʼ), with occasional smidgeons of synth-pop (ʽDrawingʼ), music hall (ʽPollywog In A Bogʼ), and country-western (ʽI Can Singʼ): again, this diversity is more likely to appeal to grown-ups than kids, accustomed to the monotonousness of teen-pop, but then again, we're hardly talking here about competing with the likes of the Mouse­keteers — most likely, the only toddlers to be exposed to Snacktime! must have been the little child­ren of old-time Barenaked Ladies fans.

In any case, goofy and silly as these songs are, they are not altogether insightless, and definitely not uninventive: whatever be, I'd rather listen to this stuff, where Robertson and Hearn are com­pletely in their element, than to Barenaked Ladies Are Me, for instance. With so many ideas to test and produce, not everything here works (I am particularly disappointed by the sentimentally anthemic album closer: ʽHere Come The Geeseʼ is too plain and repetitive to qualify for a true «grand finale», as it was probably thought of), but if everything here worked, the album would have been a downright masterpiece. As it is, it is just a very friendly thumbs up type of album.

Check "Snacktime!" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Snacktime!" (MP3) on Amazon

4 comments:

  1. Huge comeback for the boys. Yes it's technically a children's album, but if that was the key to unlocking all the pent-up fun and quirkiness that was nearly completely buried on Are Me so be it. For the first time in a long while the lyrics provide a big highlight with nearly every tune providing a fun turn of phrase or two. And the songs are mostly light-hearted but also very catchy. Almost nothing here gets boring or overstays it's welcome (the short average song length is a big benefit). It's almost certainly their most diverse album ever. Jim Creeggan submits his best BNL contribution to date with Pollywog in a Bog, which is also probably my pick for best song on the album. Kevin Hearn also has his best showing to date on a BNL record contributing a third of the material all of it being at least solid with some major highlights along the way ("Drawing" "Eraser" and all three parts of his "Snacktime Trilogy"). My favourite Robertson tracks are the most short and silly on the album ("Rasins" "I Can Sing"). And finally Page doesn't contribute all that much, but I like "The Ninjas" and "Curious" a lot.
    I've seen some people call this their best album since their debut, and while I wouldn't go quite that far it's absolutely among my top 5 favourite BNL albums. Still it's kind of odd that it took a kids album of all things to unleash this amount of creativity from the band.

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  2. One of my favorite BNL efforts, if mainly for the eclecticism.

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  3. Hi, George!
    Just stopped by to make one of those little obnoxious requests: if you've got the time, would you please consider reviewing Beck?

    Keep it up! I really admire what you do.

    -E.

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  4. The first Barenaked Ladies' album I could actually enjoy, that didn't bug me with obnoxious humour and/or alt-adult pablum.
    I've never been close to a college, so I can't say that I dislike typical college humour, but I do dislike typical Barenaked Ladies humour. The only song on "Gordon" I enjoyed was "Box Set".

    "One Week" has a charming chorus, "Bank Job" was fun first time around, and I like "Maybe Katie".
    Otherwise I don't know why I bothered sitting through all these albums.

    This one though, I enjoyed almost all the whole way through.
    The transformation to the mid-section on "Eraser" is hilarious!
    I don't like the gender-political conservatism of "My Big Sister" though.

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