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[whitespace] The Barenaked Ladies
Neither Naked nor Female: The Barenaked Ladies don't need sex or violence to juice up their funny, tuneful rock songs.

Hailing Canada

Nice guys Barenaked Ladies finish strong with subtle, mature 'Maroon' album

By Gina Arnold

THE BARENAKED LADIES offer a good example of one of those extremely rare cases of nice guys coming in reasonably near the head of the pack--and for that fact alone, their music should be praised to the skies. After all, they don't play butt-rock (a term coined to describe the type of dumb, hate-filled music of bands like Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Eminem and others).

Instead, I think of the Barenaked Ladies as a Canadian version of the Young Fresh Fellows, a band I consider one of America's finest. Like the Fellows, who are neither young nor fresh, the Barenaked Ladies are neither nude nor female. What they are is a plain old guitar-based rock band with a love of plain old bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, augmented by a seriously debilitating sense of humor.

On the face of it, the Barenaked Ladies are an unlikely success story, since their lyrics are not mean, violent or sexy. Also, they play tuneful, mid-tempo funny rock in the same camp as Ween, the Dead Milkmen and They Might Be Giants. Like the Giants, they excel in the live arena, where they are known for goofy medleys of rap and pop songs, precision dancing and audience participation.

Although they are a truly wonderful live act, they are not particularly good-looking, videogenic or pretentious, three qualities that tend to be essential to success in America. Their career to date has had a peculiar trajectory. In 1992, their debut LP, Gordon, sold 950,000 copies in Canada, catapulting them into stardom. Of course, it's a lot easier to succeed as a rock band if you're Canadian, since the government insists that all radio stations play a specified percentage of Canadian music.

Even so, something funny happened to the Barenaked ones, because their next three LPs sold fewer and fewer copies, bottoming out at 150,000 in 1997. Their career reignited in 1998 when Sarah McLachlan's management, hot off the Lilith Fair, took them on, leveraging their clout into airplay for the 1998 LP Stunt.

With constant touring--the band crossed the Canadian tundra six times in one year--and a splendid live show, the Barenaked Ladies broke in America, going triple-platinum on the strength of the single "One Week," a goofy, white-boy rap about a weeklong fight between a boyfriend and a girlfriend with the chorus, "It'll still be two days till I say 'I'm sorry.' "

"It's All Been Done," the follow-up single, is slightly more indicative of the band's strengths: a harmony-laden, jangle-pop tune with thoughtful lyrics and soaring chorus. Nevertheless, although that year the Barenaked Ladies were one of the few bearable bands on the radio, they have not become a household word, probably because they haven't been able to distinguish themselves from other all-guy, two-guitar rock bands that populate the earth in such numbers.

THEIR NEWEST ALBUM, Maroon (Reprise Records), is the Barenaked Ladies' seventh. Although it continues to provide a steady stream of catchy rock songs about problem relationships, it is also weirdly staid. Gone are lyrics like "If I had a million dollars, I'd buy you some art--a Picasso or a Garfunkel" and "Like Harrison Ford, I'm getting Frantic/Like Sting, I'm tantric."

Indeed, adult is the word that comes to mind when listening to Maroon. This could be because one member of the Barenaked Ladies, Kevin Hearn, has just completed a two-year battle with leukemia, and the emotional impact seems to have had a truly profound effect on the band's songwriting.

They've always been articulate, but these songs display an unexpected extra layer of depth. There are no simple pop tunes here, no "One Week" whose lyrics mingle wasabi and Leann Rimes. Instead, there are songs like the single "Pinch Me," a slow-tempo philosophical reverie about a guy who can't figure out the meaning of life, and various other numbers about relationships that never slip into easy answers.

Then there's "Helicopters," which equates aspects of rock touring to the fall of Saigon. It is a beautiful song, with a delicately felt subtext--a great deal richer than most songs with this kind of very lightweight tunefulness and instrumentation. The even more poignant "Tonight I Fell Asleep at the Wheel" confronts quite literally the idea of dying young--without, somehow, sinking into morbidity or even depression.

In short, Maroon is a mature record, and that's an odd thing for a rock & roll band to put out. After a decade of shooting all over the charts, this may be the moment when the Barenaked Ladies find their real level. Unfortunately, that level will probably be back down the food chain a bit, where nice guys belong. I mean that as a compliment, though: this stuff is just too good and too subtle for the masses.

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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