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Their first LP without Page: still on top-form
on 3 April 2010
From their very beginnings in the late 1980s, the Barenaked Ladies' songwriting and vocal duties have primarily been shared between co-founding members Steve Page and Ed Robertson. So, when Page left the band to pursue other interests in 2008 (first and foremost, creating solo material), a considerable gap hole left in the heart of the band. The guy behind many of the Ladies' most important, emotionally complex songs - "Break Your Heart", "What A Good Boy", "Everything Old Is New Again" - was no longer there.
Overcoming this tremendous loss was, naturally, quite a challenge for the band; it's no surprise, then, that a) despite strong material, his absence is still conspicuous to longtime fans; and that, b), much of the material deals with the ensuing emotional aftermath of his departure. But Robertson and co. do an admirable job of getting over this unfortunate hurdle, and deliver an LP of 14 songs that continue to straddle that same line between maturity and childlike playfulness that they have done so effortlessly for the past two decades.
Given Page's absence, it's no surprise that Robertson takes the majority of lead vocal roles; Opening track, and first single, "You Run Away", is no exception. It's one of the strongest rock ballads of the band's career. Building from a slight, calm, piano-driven opening to a climax that layers vocals, piano and guitar to deliver an explosively powerful message (it's no stretch to suggest the lyrics - "you run away, you could turn and stay, but you run away from me [..] I did my best, but it wasn't enough" is a reference to the strained relationship between Robertson and Page and their failure to hold the band together), it captures your attention immediately, and is their strongest single in years.
"Summertime" is an upbeat, catchy, pop-rock number; sounds like the perfect June single. "Four Seconds" is the track that runs closest to novelty - blending folk, Robertson's trademark hip-hop, alternative rock, and a delightfully meta Tyler-sung chorus of "one Mississippi! two Mississippi! three Mississippi! four!"
"Ordinary" is one of the strongest cuts on the album. Harmonised vocals, an obscenely catchy-yet-simple chorus ("it's come undone, done") and a brilliantly memorable folky melody. "I Have Learned" sees the band go a bit Foo Fighters, with a heavy guitar-driven chorus; while "Every Subway Car", second single from the album, is a brilliant mid-tempo rocker. Previously named "Graffiti Love", it's in the tradition of BNL songs about unlikely subjects - "When I Fall", "I Live With It Every Day" - on this occasion, a guy who demonstrates his love through street art on train cars.
"How Long" is a disappointingly generic rocker, but the brilliant catchy "Golden Boy" more than makes up for it - it recalls the finest moments of BLAM, with its driving chorus and wonderfully catchy vocal melodies. The lyrics may strike some as bitter about the Page situation - "just hang your hat at somebody's else's house" - but such emotion is natural in the aftermath of a split, and it'd be churlish to detract points for heartfelt emotion. "The Love We're In", Robertson's final contribution, is a sweet, slow, near-acoustic ballad whose simple, sweet chorus ("Why aren't we making the love we're in?") is gracefully backed by verses that deliver the amusing takes of traditional turns-of-phrase BNL are known for ("you crash the party, I'll crash the plane").
Robertson isn't the only guy to take on lead vocal duty, however: BNL remain a democracy. As such, "Another Heartbreak", track three, sees Kevin Hearn take the lead, on a strong tune that juxtaposes a calm chorus with angry verses. Hearn also shows up on "Jerome", the album's weakest track - a plodding, eerie tune about the "ghost town" in Arizona; his final contribution, the subdued, nighttime ballad "Watching The Northern Lights", is far stronger, and the perfect album closer. Regardless of the varied quality of his contributions, while some fans don't enjoy his particular vocal stylings - they're surprisingly calm and sweet - they add texture and diversity to the album.
Jim Creeggan's contributed just two songs, meanwhile, but both are stellar: the moody "On the Lookout", with its soulful chorus; and album standout "I Saw It", a marvellous, harmony-laden ballad, with ambiguous lyrics that can be read in both light-hearted and disturbingly heartbreaking ways. It's the unexpected standout on an surprisingly strong album.
Barenaked Ladies fanatics will pick this album up without question, and rightfully so; to those relatively unacquainted with the band, I'd advise checking out earlier recordings that featured Page material too, but this is a solid starting point, and those who only know the Ladies for "One Week" or "Brian Wilson" will probably be pleasantly surprised by the diversity of material on offer here.
(The album is available with various bonus tracks from various sources: "Moonstone", "All in Good Time", "She Turned Away", "Let There Be Light". All are solid, but acquiring them all is quite a task - you'll have to make multiple downloads and do some importing - and the band say the songs will be available as a separate digital EP at some point later this year, so you'd do as well to wait.)