Barenaked Ladies – All in Good Time: Might be piss-poor, but I had to take a little detour

2010_BarenakedLadies_AllinGoodTimeArtist: Barenaked Ladies
Album: All in Good Time
Year: 2010
Grade: B

In Brief: Steven Page’s departure still stings a bit, but the Ladies are determined to carry on, and this is a good, albeit not amazing, new start for the group.

For someone on the outside looking in, it can be tough to tell whether the music of Barenaked Ladies is intended for mature audiences or immature ones. They started out barely on the threshold of adulthood themselves, with a name sure to elicit giggles and bad puns, but one that would also likely keep cautious parents away. They quickly became known for their quick-tongued novelty songs where the catch phrases and obvious jokes sometimes outshone the musical talent on display, and yet all the way back to their first album, they displayed a lush, tender side when they needed to. After their massive crossover hit “One Week” and the ensuing success of Stunt, they used the bulk of Maroon to show us how grown up they were, with mixed results over the decade to follow. Then they went indie for a few albums. Then they recorded an album called Snacktime! for their children (which is ironic, given my observations about how many parents would likely react to the band name if they didn’t no any better). Then Steven Page, one of their two frontmen, quit the band, and depending on who you talk to, it was either because he wanted to pursue a career in musical theater (he’s got the voice for it), or because he got busted for drug possession. All of the above are glimpses of a larger history in which this band has vacillated between childish antics and grown-up artistry. And those who know them for one can have a tough time recognizing, or seeing the validity of, the other.

Some fans took the news pretty hard when Page announced his departure in 2009. I wasn’t as worried. I knew I’d miss him, but looking over the band’s more recent history, a lot of my favorite songs in their repertoire were penned and sung by Ed Robertson anyway. Their songwriting process had become increasingly more free-for-all, with anyone in the band free to step up and offer an idea. That’s not to say that we’d never heard from the other guys before – bassist Jim Creegan contributed a lot of co-writes over the years and got to try his hand at singing lead a few times on Born on a Pirate Ship, and keyboardist Kevin Hearn had previously been heard on Maroon‘s secret track “Hidden Sun”. But they started to feel more like regular contributors on Barenaked Ladies Are Me/Men, and especially Snacktime! (Shoot, even drummer Tyler Stewart finally got a writing credit on that one.) With four songwriters in the band, each with individual personalities and voices that stood apart from the other guys, I could live with one of them jumping ship. They were certainly better with Page, but he wasn’t the band’s lone source of talent by a long shot.

Two things were assured to us when Page left – that the departure was amicable (yeah, bands almost always say that), and that the rest of the band was going to continue putting out albums under the same name. The latter promise was kept this year in the form of All in Good Time, which proudly boasts the four remaining members on the cover as if to say, “Remember the pudgy guy with the glasses who everyone recognized? Yeah, there are still four more of us.” The former promise… eh, I have my doubts. The band may have arrived at a mutual agreement, but listening to some of these lyrics, it’s hard not to interpret them as Ed getting a little angst out of his system over a situation he wishes had gone differently. Bands who split with key members amicably generally don’t put out a song about a broken relationship between two brothers as their lead single. But Ed’s not all about anger and disillusionment here – and even when he is, the rest of the guys in the band can’t help but brighten the mood a bit. For their parts, Jim and Kevin contribute sunny, easy-going pop songs that hearken back to simpler times. They won’t get noticed as immediate standouts, but they are an important part of the band’s persona.

Musically, you can expect some changes when a founding member who leaves a band is also one of its guitarist. This leaves Ed to handle most of the guitar duties – Kevin sometimes helps out, but the lack of a lead/rhythm guitar dynamic on several songs leaves him to fill in the blanks with piano or synth. Sometimes that sets up the peppy, slightly zany atmosphere we come to expect from the Ladies; sometimes the band will veer into glossy, overproduced territory as a result of it. But cut ’em some slack – this is their first time back on a label in nearly seven years, and they probably wanted a few songs that went for the pop radio jugular. You might not find the next “One Week” or “It’s All Been Done” here, but there might just be another “Call and Answer” or “Wind It Up” or “Easy”. Those are all lesser-known, but respectable singles (and personal favorites of mine) that have served the band well. All in Good Time might not be a unified statement so much as a consolidation of the various tools that the Ladies still have at their fingertips. But for what it is, it’s enjoyable, and with 14 new songs to choose from, the occasional duds are forgivable (and they don’t leave nearly as bad a taste in my mouth as some of the blunders on Everything to Everyone or Barenaked Ladies Are Men).

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. You Run Away
Putting the lead single, and most direct song regarding the band’s recent personnel change, right up front was a bold move. It doesn’t sound like it would be at first, since the opening is all cuddly piano and keyboards, with Ed Robertson offering what seems like a sensitive, sympathetic vocal expressing regret for letting a brother cut and run instead of helping him out. Listen closely as the song builds in intensity – the tone subtly shifts from sorrow to fatalism, as if to acknowledge that the person made their own bed and now they can sleep in it. The bridge is most telling: “I’ll give you something to cry about/One thing, you should try it out/Hold a mirror shoulder high/When you’re older, look you in the eye.” Kind of a subtle way of saying, “You’ll realize what a dumb thing you did in hindsight.” It’s highly speculated that this one is Ed’s attempt to address Stephen’s departure on a personal level, basically saying, “Nobody kicked you out – you chose to leave.” It sort of says that subtly without being so direct that it couldn’t be interpreted through the lens of another type of fractured friendship. I find myself wishing at times that the band had played up the drama a bit more as the song reached its climax – it’s a serviceable enough rock ballad with good backing vocals from Kevin Hearn, but the lyrics definitely overshadow the music.

2. Summertime
We’re gonna ease into this one slowly. The band settles into a nice mid-tempo groove with some slightly manic guitar fuzz here, as Ed pulls out an unabashedly cheery melody, complete with a “ba-da-ba” vocal hook, to complement a lyric about hunkering down and waiting out a cold Ontario winter with the thought of the summer season on the horizon to sustain you. We’ve all heard the musical ode to warmer weather before, so this is really nothing new, but for a simple pleasure, it’s pretty well done – a good balance of sensitivity and hyperactivity.

3. Another Heartbreak
Kevin Hearn now plays the right-hand man role that Ed arguably used to play when Steven was in the band. This is the first of three of his compositions that appear on the album, and while his frail voice sometimes has the unfortunate side effect of reminding me of a Muppet, his songwriting style is its own interesting blend of nostalgia and oddly specific observations that help to ensure you get the mood right away while not always knowing what the next lyric will be. This would actually be one of his simpler songs, with its straightforward piano melody and the repeated line “Hold on, here comes another heartbreak” propelling much of the song, but look at the details and you’ll find fun little flourishes like the dramatic bridge melody that momentarily shakes the song out of its easygoing rhythm.

4. Four Seconds
Far and away the catchiest song on the album, this one’s part goofy white-boy rap a la “One Week” and part pirate shanty. It’s all in the bouncy rhythm, almost daring you to hide your seasickness for as long as possible. They’ve got a great potpourri of sounds here – a dobro hook that rattles around in your head, a bit of chopping and slicing of Tyler’s drums in the studio as Ed’s words dance around the rhythm, and even a surprise vocal snippet from Tyler as he chimes in – “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four!” I’m pretty sure the song’s nonsense. Ed even admits, “Oh sure, that one’s obscure/Maybe p!ss-poor, but I had to take a little detour”. Sometimes words are fun just for their texture and their ability to twist tongues. I just wish they’d done a bit more of that rather than ending the song so soon. I’m just getting into it when a second count-off ends the song.

5. On the Lookout
“Roll this one from the top!” Alright guys, that’s a bit cheesy. As much as I find the fake white-boy rap thing amusing, the sampling and silly imitation record scratching don’t do an otherwise lovely song any favors. Jim Creegan’s come up with a nice little slow groove here, almost the kind of thing you could dance to (especially when the strings begin to crescendo and the vocals melt together like smooth warm butter), and that’s fully appropriate for a song that looks back on a special place and time shared by two lovers, their own little secret spot from which the world looks small enough to conquer. I’m smitten by the melody here – it hits all the right sweet spots in that same 70’s throwback way that some of the much-ballyhooed sensitive songs on My Morning Jacket‘s last album did.

6. Ordinary
The Ladies’ first album, Gordon, and their 2006 album Barenaked Ladies Are Me are largely my two favorites due to a generous helping of acoustic-driven tracks that demonstrate the capable musicianship behind a band otherwise known for their novelty songs. This track seeks to continue that tradition, with Ed picking out a sort of folksy melody, which is later accented by the keyboards and dobro as it builds into a psuedo-country sort of shuffle. It’s not quite as cool as a banjo-driven number like “Adrift” or “Everything Had Changed”, but hey, I’ll take it. One thing I’m starting to notice at this point in the song is that a lot of the band’s lyrics are rather minimal nowadays – this one seems to lament leaving a relationship due to being bored with it, but it’s difficult to read between the lines. What they lack in exposition, they make up for in how they keep the momentum of the song pushing forward and how they layer the baking vocals.

7. I Have Learned
Some hints of anger were shown in “You Run Away”, but this brooding rocker (yes, the Barenaked Ladies do occasionally write those!) seems to be the point where Ed finally lets the bitterness hang out. They go fully electric here – I think Kevin’s even abandoned the keyboard for a song in order to play rhythm guitar. You’re never gonna head-bang to a BNL song or anything, but it’s chunky enough by the band’s generally poppy standards. (And there’s also a cowbell. Just so you know they’re not totally seething and ticked off.) Here, Ed’s calling out a person who is basically a showoff, who crashed and burned in a fantastic display in hubris, and who Ed feels like doesn’t know how to live with the consequences of his actions. Here’s where it’s tempting to interpret all such songs as being about Stephen Page. I’ll refrain from doing that, because it’s not like Ed’s never written angry songs that wryly tell some poseur off in the past. We tend to see these things through the lens we want to see them through.

8. Every Subway Car
We’re back into pop mode here, with the electric guitars still front and center, but with Kevin’s synthesizer hook as the most prominent element. I wasn’t a big fan of this one at first – it seemed to follow an old BNL template without the concept behind it striking me as a funny or clever standout. It doesn’t help that Ed drops the word “whack” in the first verse. (As in, the old hip-hop insult meaning something is lame.) It makes it hard to take the song seriously. I’m not sure it’s necessarily all that serious, but it seems to be a genuine love song told from an offbeat perspective. Ed’s writing from the point of view of a graffiti artist. I’m guessing he was probably riding the subway one day, saw some heart with a couple’s names in it, and decided he should try to get into that guy’s head and write a song about why he’d choose to declare his love to the world that way. I gotta give ’em points for the original concept, even if the execution is a bit awkward.

9. Jerome
And now for something completely different! If you didn’t learn to expect that from Kevin’s odd little side-trips on the last few albums (“Vanishing”, “Serendipity”, and “Another Spin”, in case you can’t remember), then this little oddity ought to drive the point home that he marches to the beat of a different drummer. (Well, Tyler’s still on the drums, but… never mind.) For some reason, he decided that this album needed a folksy shuffle about a ghost town, complete with old-timey backing vocals (I can practically picture the other guys huddled around one of those vintage microphones), some cheesy organ tones just for character, and an absolutely sweet slide guitar solo. Again, I have to give the guys credit for imagination – most musicians (of the non-country variety, at least) don’t think to write about the backstory of a forgotten mining town and its seedy inhabitants. It’s cute, even though it has jack all to do with the rest of the album.

10. How Long
This one’s a good companion to “I Have Learned”, since it’s another brooding, minor-key rocker. This one’s all bull-headed conflict, as Ed points out someone’s obstinance and quips, “Even a busted watch is right twice a day”. This is pretty much all emotional release, admitting you’re fed up and done with somebody, rather than an attempt to bridge the gap and understand the conflict, but I figure we all get to that boiling point with certain people sooner or later. I wish there was more to flesh it out in the chorus than just “Don’t say how long” over and over. I feel like the guys are taking walks on the song lyrics when they could have fleshed it out a bit more and hit home runs, and that’s what keeps enjoyable songs like this one from entering the ranks of BNL’s classics.

11. Golden Boy
OK, now I really feel like Ed’s taken a template from BNL’s hits of yesteryear and tried to re-animate it. Specifically, “Too Little Too Late”. This one bursts out of the gate with a similar bouncy melody, but it doesn’t quite have the force of will to be indelible as that song, despite Tyler’s manic percussion and the use of handclaps here and there. This one sort of keeps up the animosity from the previous song, perhaps fulfilling my wish for fleshing out the lyrics a bit more, but corny lines like “Hang your hat in somebody else’s house” and “Go where you glitter away” kind of keep me at a distance from the emotion being expressed here. I get that they’re going for sarcasm, but the Ladies do have a bad habit of throwing odd metaphors at a wall and only about half of them sticking.

12. I Saw It
Jim Creeggan’s back at the forefront with another mid-tempo track, this one a little more of a basic pop construct instead of the fun groove of “On the Lookout”. There’s definitely more going on here than his protracted lyrics fully explain – something grievous has gone down “On the park by the playground”, but Jim is so vague about it and the melody’s too easygoing for me to really feel anybody’s pain here. It’s a pleasant, but repetitive track that ultimately falls flat because it doesn’t quite have the gumption to face its subject head-on.

13. The Love We’re In
Here’s a good example of a thoughtful line expanded into a song that can’t quite support it. I wanted to like this one, since it sounds like Ed’s written a heartfelt love ballad for his wife, in slow-danceable 3/4 time and all that. The basic hook, “Why aren’t we making the love we’re in?” is brilliant, but it gets odd after that due to another set of mismatched metaphors. (“You crash the party, I’ll crash the plane?” That’s a mood-killer.) It’s also a bit weird to hear all the guys crooning in unison that “we” should be making love. Not that boy bands aren’t constantly doing something similar. It’s just unintentionally funny because these guys don’t swing that way. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

14. Watching the Northern Lights
Slow, dreamy songs are actually an OK place for minimal lyrics, ones that merely paint the edges of the scene and use the music to let you picture it. As Kevin Hearn’s closing track floats by on a gentle cloud of finger-picked electric guitar and sparse piano, it’s easy to imagine the distant haze of a sunset across an expansive tundra, probably somewhere not too much farther north than the band’s native Toronto. Kevin simply saw something beautiful and wanted to capture the moment (“All I find, I leave behind/This song is my souvenir”), and as a person who often gets his travel memories and the music he was listening to at the time conflated in his memory, I can relate to that. Strange as it may seem, I think this piece would make a nice companion to the similar quite majesty of “Here Come the Geese”, the Kevin Hearn-penned closing track on Snacktime!

I’m sure it will be easy for some fans to diss the band for venturing into adult contemporary territory and farther away from the tongue-in-cheek, “you gotta hear this one!” quality of many of their early records, but I think the band has always had a foot in that door, so it’s been more of a slow, subtle change over the years. I do feel the lack of an immediate standout, a track that I just can’t wait to amuse my friends with, but I can’t say that this band has lost its willingness to shake things up. Perhaps they’re just tired of being expected to be funny when there are other colors in the box of emotions to play with. As long as that remains an aspect of their musical personality in the future (and you can vaguely hear it here in a few sarcastic snippets of lyrics, or most notably in “Four Seconds”), I’m willing to follow the band wherever else they might choose to explore.

I just hope Ed Robertson doesn’t take off any time soon.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
You Run Away $1.50
Summertime $1.50
Another Heartbreak $1
Four Seconds $1.50
On the Lookout $1.50
Ordinary $1.50
I Have Learned $1.50
Every Subway Car $1
Jerome $1
How Long $1.50
Golden Boy $.50
I Saw It $.50
The Love We’re In $.50
Watching the Northern Lights $1
TOTAL: $16

BAND MEMBERS:
Ed Robertson: Lead vocals, guitar, banjo, dobro
Kevin Hearn: Piano, keyboards, synths, guitar, mandolin, accordion, vocals
Jim Creeggan: Bass guitar, double bass, vocals
Tyler Stewart: Drums, percussion, vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

WEBSITES:
http://www.barenakedladies.com/
http://www.myspace.com/barenakedladies

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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2 thoughts on “Barenaked Ladies – All in Good Time: Might be piss-poor, but I had to take a little detour

  1. Pingback: The Hawk in Paris – Freaks: Don’t make me beg for more. | murlough23

  2. Pingback: Barenaked Ladies – Grinning Streak: In which they fail to exceed the posted limits | murlough23

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