Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Barenaked Ladies Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Gordon (1992, Sire)

A

A very charming major-label debut indeed, Gordon (the band’s first commercially-released full-length following a series of indie EPs and promo releases) finds the group’s playful spirit and trademark brand of humor pleasantly already fully-formed. While some of the more novelty-minded cuts haven’t aged especially well (“New Kid (on the Block)” in particular seems a bit dated), Barenaked Ladies have always had a gift – thanks to the melodic compositional chops of bandleaders Steven Page and Ed Robertson – for crafting comical songs that still hold up as songs worth coming back to time and time again and singing along to long after the jokes themselves have worn off, which you certainly can’t say about most novelty records. The album – weighing in at fifteen tracks – is maybe just a bit too long for its own good, but the album is sequenced quite well and there are enough solid cuts scattered throughout the disc to keep you engaged from start to finish. “Box Set” and “Blame It on Me” are better-than-average filler cuts, while the batch of singles here ranks among the band’s very best. “Be My Yoko Ono” is still good for a laugh all these years later, and “Enid” and “What A Good Boy” are equally enjoyable, but even those three are dwarfed by the sheer greatness of the two most famous songs here, the easygoing acoustic stroll of “If I Had $1,000,000” (which should have long-lost its novelty by now, but just try to resist laughing by the time Page gets to the line “But not a real green dress, that’s cruel”) and, even better, the utterly brilliant “Brian Wilson,” a tribute to the legendary Beach Boys frontman.    

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Maybe You Should Drive (1994, Sire)

B –

An undeniable drop-off in quality from the prior album, the band’s sophomore outing finds them largely abandoning the comical touches of their debut and suddenly turning very serious on its audience. This might not be so alienating a move (after all, several of the band’s greatest songs are perfectly straight-faced) except that the melodies aren’t nearly as strong this time, either, and the songs subsequently don’t take hold nearly so quickly. The album is not without its gems – “Jane” may actually be the prettiest song in the band’s catalog, and “Alternative Girlfriend” is great fun – but, overall, Maybe You Should Drive simply lacks the charm of the debut and feels a bit too filler-heavy to make it fully engaging, even if the songs are more substantial lyrically – and deliberately so – than those on Gordon.

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Born on a Pirate Ship (1996, Reprise)

C

The Canadian quintet thankfully seems to have recovered a bit of their playfulness on this, their third outing, so the album feels much less self-serious than Maybe You Should Drive, but the band is continuing to exhibit signs of a creative drought (it screams volumes that one of the two best songs here is actually a re-recording of a song from the band’s pre-Gordon indie-EP days) and the album is sorely lacking for strong material, although there are a small handful of exceptions, namely “Break Your Heart,” the surprisingly moving “When I Fall,” the light stomp of “Shoe Box” (later included on the soundtrack to the sitcom Friends) and, best of all, the wistfully-dramatic yet forceful rock of “The Old Apartment,” the band’s finest single since “Brian Wilson.”  

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Stunt (1998, Reprise)

A

A stunning return to form, Stunt is at least as good as Gordon, if not superior. It’s not entirely devoid of filler and its back half isn’t nearly so strong, but for the first time since the band’s debut, they’re not confining all their hooks to the singles, and part of the fun in listening to Stunt is finding all the surprisingly infectious album cuts scattered along the way like the tender “Light Up My Room,” the surprisingly dark “I’ll Be That Girl,” the lighthearted “Never Is Enough” and the simultaneously lovely and hilarious “Some Fantastic” (which sports the brilliantly twisted faux-romantic line “One day I will work with animals … and when we’re done, we’ll boil them down for glue we could use to re-adhere your lips to mine if you were here” – so, so demented but so, so funny). But it’s the singles here that are the most fun of all, whether you’re talking about the aspiring party-rock of “Alcohol,” the sophisticated jangle-rock of “It’s All Been Done,” or, most memorably of all, the band’s American commercial breakthrough, the chart-topping, tongue-twisting novelty of “One Week,” a song that’s near-impossible to resist singing along to – assuming, of course, you can manage to remember all those words! 

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Maroon (2000, Reprise)

A + 

Nothing here was nearly quite so big a hit as “One Week,” but the boys just may have managed to top themselves with this follow-up to the breakthrough album Stunt. Never before have they quite so perfectly balanced their sense of humor (as on the hilariously campy mock-Broadway stylings of “Sell Sell Sell”) with their more serious selves (often even in the same song, as exhibited in the way Steven Page follows the line “… or we’ll end up in the bath” in the lite-soul-tinged warped love song “Conventioneers” with a dramatic pause before hilariously continuing, “Now we’re in the bath …”), nor have they ever packed quite so many hooks into a single album as they do here, the album arguably being the most filler-free of their full-lengths yet. The equal-parts playful and wistful “Pinch Me” sports a tongue twister of a chorus that hearkens back to “One Week” and was the biggest hit, soaring to #15 and becoming the second of the band’s two Top 40 hits in the U.S. to date, but there are other songs here that are even more deliriously fun and infectious, particularly “The Humor of the Situation,” the handclap-heavy “Too Little Too Late,” and, best of all, the mind-blowingly clever wordplay of “Falling for the First Time,” the latter choruses of which unusually shuffle the lyrics around in new and radically different ways so as not to create exact mirror images while still managing to reconfigure the lines in a logical and strangely perfect way. The quadruple-platinum Stunt may have sold in far greater numbers and be the more iconic of the two discs, but you could make an equally solid case for this being the band’s finest hour artistically.     

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Everything to Everyone (2003, Reprise)

B +

A commercial disappointment, Everything to Everyone became only the second album from the band (the other being Maybe You Should Drive) to not at least go gold, but while the album is definitely a drop-off in quality from Maroon and Stunt, it’s still a very solid album and one that’s arguably superior to both Born on a Pirate Ship and Maybe You Should Drive. The biggest problem with the disc is simply that, at fourteen cuts, it’s just too long and is more filler-heavy than it actually needed to be. True, nothing here is quite as brilliant as “Too Little Too Late” or “Falling for the First Time,” but the album’s not lacking in hooks, either, and the punchy “Second Best,” the Middle Eastern-tinged “Upside Down” (try putting this one on a mixtape sometime alongside They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”), the surprisingly stirring “Testing 1,2,3,” and the contagious “Maybe Katie” are all great fun, while fans of the band’s more novelty-oriented excursions like “One Week” or “If I Had 1,000,000” should warm immediately to the comical, chimpanzee-themed “Another Postcard,” one of the most delightfully silly singles in the band’s catalog. You’ll definitely skip past a track here and there, but considering this one can usually be found secondhand in most dollar bins, there are still just enough memorable songs here to make this one a real bargain.