Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Barenaked Ladies Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

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Barenaked Ladies Are Me (2006, Desperation/Nettwerk)

B –

Following the underwhelming sales response to Everything to Everyone, the band would not only leave Reprise Records but would eschew major labels entirely, instead going the indie route from this disc forward. They thankfully don’t make any particularly major changes to their style in the process, although this is a noticeably less goofy album than any of the three prior discs (although their sense of humor is still very much apparent on “Bank Job”) and the disc gets off to a very uncharacteristic start with the banjo-heavy ballad “Adrift,” while horn flourishes adorn the acoustic rock of “Bull in a China Shop.” But though the songs are reasonably good (particularly the guitar workout “Wind It Up,” which is oddly held back in the sequencing until the end of the record; Robertson’s “Take It Back” and the galloping “Easy,” the latter of which is underpinned by a fabulous acoustic riff; and the Page-sung “Rule the World with Love” and “Sound of Your Voice,” the latter written by keyboardist Kevin Hearn), nothing here is especially immediate, either, at least not by the standards set by the band’s singles dating back to Born on a Pirate Ship, and the disc may take several spins before the songs start to stick. It’s a bit of a disappointment compared to their final three outings for Reprise, yes, but it’s still a perfectly pleasant album and one that’s no more or less satisfying than Maybe You Should Drive.  

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Barenaked Ladies Are Men (2007, Desperation/Nettwerk)

B –

Recorded at the same time as its immediate predecessor and nearly issued as one-half of a double-disc set with that record, this is still a pretty long record in its own right, one weighing in at sixteen cuts. There are some minor gems scattered throughout – most notably Page’s horn-laden toe-tapper “Angry People” and Robertson’s sunny contrast “Fun and Games,” though the tender Robertson ballad “Half a Heart,” the chiming midtempo rock of “Quality,” the handclap-heavy “Maybe Not,” the jubilant march of “Why Say Anything Nice,” and the jazzy lounge-pop of “Beautiful” are appealing as well. Even Kevin Hearn is on a roll, delivering two strong cuts in “Serendipity” (arguably his finest composition for the band yet) and “Another Spin.” But the album’s length means there’s also a lot of filler here, and the melodies are only slightly stronger than those on Barenaked Ladies Are Me. Fittingly, considering its genesis, the album is ultimately a continuation not just in sound, but quality as well, of the preceding disc. Both discs can be found secondhand for quite cheaply, though, and if you combine the best tracks from each of these records onto a single mix tape, you end up with an album that’s nearly every bit as good as Gordon or Stunt, which just goes to prove the value of self-editing.  

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All in Good Time (2010, EMI/Raisin’)

C +

Steven Page has now departed from the band at this point, the remaining four members opting to continue as a quartet. Hearn and Creegan take on a slightly greater amount of the songwriting than usual, but Ed Robertson has become the group’s primary writer, penning nine of the fourteen cuts here. The disc is a somewhat jarring listen, though, in part because it’s noticeably more somber and self-serious than their normal work, not in the least since the disc opens up with a heavy ballad in “You Run Away,” making the disc feel very much like the post-Page equivalent of Maybe You Should Drive, and because the newly-slimmed-down lineup of the band seems a bit musically lost without their former co-leader around (although this would change shortly as the band grew more self-confident in its ability to carry on). There are still some good tunes to be found here, if a bit outside of the band’s usual wheelhouse – the highly toe-tapping “Ordinary” is noticeably a tad more folk-oriented than anything they’ve done, while the excellent single “Summertime” is uncharacteristically built around a pure-soul R&B groove. It’s definitely a spotty disc, but then, that’s probably only natural given the circumstances, and the group would get back into a groove again soon enough.   

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Grinning Streak (2013, Vanguard/Raisin’)

B

While some of the band’s oldest fans may lament the absence of Steven Page, Barenaked Ladies seems a bit creatively revived on this. The remaining quartet seems to have shaken off its post-Page nerves and got back in touch with its playful side, the disc feeling considerably more like the Barenaked Ladies of old than the more muted, serious version we saw on All in Good Time. Robertson’s also found a new part-time songwriting partner in the much-underrated Kevin Griffin (best known as the frontman for Better Than Ezra), and the two men have already penned a pair of latter-day BNL concert staples in the sunny stomp of “Gonna Walk” and, even better, the ridiculously infectious singalong “Odds Are,” the catchiest song by far the band has put out since at least “Maybe Katie” and possibly even “Too Little Too Late.” The album is definitely a bit on the front-loaded side and gets less engaging as it goes on, but between the singles and the sporadic solid album cut like “Boomerang,” there are enough appealing moments here to make you feel bright about the band’s future again and render this their best disc in years. 

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Silverball (2015, Vanguard/Raisin’)

B +

That the Page-less version of the band has not only opted to stick together and soldier on is fairly admirable in and of itself, but that they have actually steadily found their footing again and are crafting their best music since the band’s major-label days is quite remarkable, and Silverball – the title of which alludes to Robertson’s much-documented love of pinball machines – manages to pack more effortless hooks into its running time than any Barenaked Ladies full-length since Everything to Everyone.  It’s also the band’s most well-sequenced album in some time, boasting a surprisingly strong middle-third in Robertson’s “Say What You Want” and “Hold My Hand” and Hearn’s delightful “Passcode,” while also holding back a pair of winning album cuts towards the album’s close with “Toe to Toe” and the cheerful “Piece of Cake.” Kevin Griffin also returns to co-write the two most infectious tunes of all, the anthemic “Get Back Up,” which manages to sound inspirational without seeming the least bit sappy (never an easy trick to pull off), and, even better, the ingenious shimmering neo-new-wave of “Duct Tape Heart,” easily the most danceable of all Barenaked Ladies singles and a song whose bridge is hilariously comprised in part of a literal dictionary definition of duct tape. Like most discs from the band, it’s still got a bit of filler, but it’s not all bunched together in the sequencing, which makes it easier for the listener to remain engaged from start to finish without completely losing interest. But songwriting aside, not since the days of Maroon and Stunt has the band sounded like it’s having quite so much fun as they do here, and that sense of joy helps to compensate for the disc’s few shortcomings. It’s not as essential a disc as the best Reprise records, no, but if you only get one of their late-career indie releases, this is the one you want to get.     

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Ladies and Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies and the Persuasions (2017, Vanguard/Raisin)

B – 

Easily the most out-of-left-field record they’ve made to date, Ladies and Gentlemen finds the band re-recording fourteen cuts from their back catalog with, surprisingly enough, the legendary a cappella group The Persuasions, a teaming brought on after the two bands joined forces for a pair of songs at a BNL New York date and decided they wanted to keep experimenting together. The songs range from the obvious (“One Week,” “The Old Apartment”) to some very unexpected choices, particularly the Stunt album cut “Some Fantastic.” It’s all quite charming and the groups sound delightful singing together, but listeners only familiar with one of the two bands – and, really, just how many BNL fans were likely to be familiar with who The Persuasions were? – are likely to be very confused and unexcited by the collaboration, and the whole experiment seems completely unnecessary and a bit self-indulgent, even if it sounds like it was great fun.   

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Fake Nudes (2017, Vanguard/Raisin’)

B –

The album title could not possibly be more brilliant and timely, but the disc itself is something of a disappointment compared to Silverball, in large part because so little of it actually resembles the band’s signature sound. For starters, Kevin Hearn (who has solely penned six of the fourteen songs here and is responsible for co-writing another three) has nearly the same number of lead-vocal features as Ed Robertson; not that Hearn is a bad singer, but that ratio is so completely out of proportion with the band’s past discs that it’s likely to be a bit jarring to many of the band’s more casual fans. Secondly and much more problematically, several of the songs suffer from modern-day-Top-40 clichés  and ill-advised production touches that make them sound like desperate attempts at another crossover hit, particularly the single “Lookin’ Up,” which sounds more like The Lumineers, Bastille, and OneRepublic all thrown together into a blender than it does Barenaked Ladies, and “Bringing it Home.” The band fares best when they stick to something much more organic and in their usual wheelhouse, which happens most often on the slower songs, making this album one of the very rare instances from the band where the ballads – particulary “Sunshine” and, best of all, the lovely folk of the clever “Canada Dry,” easily the band’s best ballad in nearly a decade, actually outshine the uptempo material. Very little here is actually bad, the occasional off-putting sonic adornments aside, but you can’t help but feel that the band has sacrificed quite a bit of their identity here.

Compilations:

It arrived too early in their careers to include anything from Everything to Everyone or any of the band’s post-majors output (no best-of package yet exists that includes such late-career gems as “Odds Are” or “Duct Tape Heart,” sadly), but Reprise’s 2001 package Disc One: All Their Greatest Hits (1991-2001) is a fabulously well-done summary of the band’s first decade together, rounding up such early essentials as “Brian Wilson,” “Jane,” and “If I Had 1,000,000” alongside more recent hits like “One Week,” “It’s All Been Done,” “Pinch Me,” and “Falling for the First Time” and throwing in a handful of newly-recorded sides and rarities like the King of the Hill soundtrack contribution “Get in Line” and a surprisingly effective and goosebump-inducing folk-flavored re-imagining of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” If you don’t want to spring for the individual studio albums, this is a great way to affordably pick up all the band’s most essential early singles. 

Live Albums:

2016’s BNL Rocks Red Rocks is a surprisingly satisfying live document of the post-Page version of the band and even sports a cover – unavailable elsewhere – of Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” featuring Colin Hay himself on lead vocals, but the quintessential Barenaked Ladies live album remains 1996’s Rock Spectacle, a fun and very light-hearted romp through the band’s earliest fan favorites that also breathes new life into much of the material, especially “Brian Wilson,” which just keeps speeding up ever so slightly until it sounds in complete danger of collapsing, the band managing to hold it together and power their way through the manic instrumental breakdown at song’s end in remarkably tight fashion. The instrumental interplay alone blows away the original studio version and is an absolute must-hear.

Miscellaneous:

You may have noticed we’ve left out a few studio discs here, but those records – 2004’s seasonal Barenaked for the Holidays, 2005’s limited-edition Shakespeare-set-to-music release As You Like It, and 2008’s kids-only Snacktime! – are more novelties or oddities than your standard studio album (we also rarely ever cover holiday albums in this column, regardless of the artist), hence their omission. They’re actually all quite pleasant, but their appeal is also incredibly limited, too, so none are essential purchases except for the most devout of fans.