Barenaked Ladies – Grinning Streak: In which they fail to exceed the posted limits

2013_BrenakedLadies_GrinningStreakArtist: Barenaked Ladies
Album: Grinning Streak
Year: 2013
Grade: C-

In Brief: A stubbornly mediocre pop album that almost feels like an Ed Robertson solo effort. The absence of Steven Page isn’t even the biggest problem here.

So, my wife and I were recently traveling in Quebec. It was our third time in Canada, and in keeping with past trips, I made sure to put some of my favorite Canadian artists in the iPod playlist as soon as we crossed the border. Arcade Fire was first up, given that we were headed to Montreal, and I’d love to be bringing you a sneak preview of their new album, but sadly, we’re still about a month away from its launch. Instead, I’ll turn the discussion to one of my other favorite Canadian bands – one that, three days into our stay in Quebec, the wife was surprised I hadn’t busted out yet. That band would be the Barenaked Ladies.

Now I know what you’re thinking, regardless of whether you were a fan of the BNL back in the day, or just a casual listener who heard “One Week” on the radio one too many times back in the 90s. “Come on”, you’re probably about to protest, “Barenaked Ladies haven’t been any good in ages.” And to that, I would opine that you’re wrong, but only about how long it’s been since they were good, not about them being not so good nowadays. See, I’ve enjoyed the band ever since their first best-of disc in 2001 prompted me to look further into their back catalogue, and while I’ve found their new stuff to be really hit-and-miss from about 2003 on (2006’s Barenaked Ladies Are Me being a notably strong exception), each album has generally provided enough dark horse favorites that might never see the light of day on radio, or even among casual fans, to remind me that these five (now four) Canucks had more on their minds than just making us giggle. The departure of founding member and lead singer Steven Page in 2009 had many who already thought the band was on a downswing declaring that it was time to stick a fork in ’em, they’re done. But I actually enjoyed the group’s first outing sans Page, 2010’s All in Good Time. It was a mixed bag, to be sure – it lacked the truly gut-punching songs that Page could turn out when he really set his mind to it. But I had come to admire Ed Robertson‘s more subtle, but often quite witty, approach, and I also felt that keyboardist Kevin Hearn and longtime bassist Jim Creeggan stepped up admirably, contributing songs that were certainly different from the old Page/Robertson dynamic, but that reminded us the band was still a mixture of interesting personalities, and not just one man with a few sideshows.

Apparently Ed Robertson forgot the lessons learned on that album, because the band’s newest release, Grinning Streak, shows almost none of that collective charm, trading most of it in for an irritatingly bland pop/rock sound that would have sounded tired ten years ago. It’s dominated by dull programming, dated pop culture references that don’t even provide the usual amusement that comes from the band’s self-aware dorkiness, and a plethora of other bad ideas. I have to fault Ed Robertson for the lion’s share of those bad ideas – while Kevin Hearn may be contributing his fair share of overbearing keyboard sounds, Robertson still wrote and sang lead on the lion’s share of these 12 new songs (with Hearn sticking out like a sore thumb during his one moment in the limelight). So most of it feels more like a solo album than anything worth bearing the Barenaked Ladies name. Most of the time, I forget that anyone other than Robertson and Hearn are even present. Creeggan just sort of fades into the woodwork, which is a shame since his contributions were particularly notable on past tracks by the band when they were doing more of an acoustic/folk thing and he got to play the upright bass. I’m not hearing much of that in the pre-fab fluff sprinkled liberally throughout this album. And drummer Tyler Stewart doesn’t get much chance to show off the energy that he’s known for, sounding like he’s been all but replaced by a drum machine on even some of the punchier tracks. The resulting album is wearisome enough to make me seriously think about taking the BNL out of my pantheon of all-time favorite bands. And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve stuck by them through a lot of experiments and stylistic changes over the years, long after some of their old-school fans had given up on them thrice over.

I’m honestly not sure whether it was just the pressure to get some new material out after a 3-year gap to remind us that they still exist, or if Ed Robertson’s just lost all sight of quality control here. I could put up with bland or even cheesy musical performances from the BNL in the past if they had something sufficiently clever to say. Here, he feels like he’s rehashing a lot of ideas that would have been fun in the 90s, before ironic white-boy hip-hop posturing in goofy pop music had been distilled down to the point where it was basically a cultural norm, and when he could still string together a quality pun or a surprising twist of fate that turned an otherwise tender song on its ear. Reaching out to the lowest common denominator and then looking for something to divide that by seems to be his usual rule here, so much that entries like the thoroughly unremarkable lead single “Boomerang” end up coming across as highlights by the time you’ve slogged through this album’s miserable midsection. A few more distinctive ideas emerge by the time you make it to the album’s drawn-out finale, but there’s no logical lead-in to any of it – just random guesses at what will stick in the listener’s mind, like wet pasta thrown at the walls of their studio. Even when they hit on a musical idea that seems to have some spark to it, Ed’s tendency to go for merely vaguely cute turns of phrase that he apparently expects us to think are either profound or gut-bustingly hilarious does the song in most of the time. (I swear, the guy writes placeholder lyrics just to have something to sing on the scratch tracks, and then forgets to replace them with something actually meaningful, or at least remotely relevant, half the time.) You know something’s wrong when I long for the highly inconsistent, but genuinely surprising, mish-mash of albums like Everything to Everyone or Barenaked Ladies Are Men (or even the aforementioned All in Good Time, just to make it clear that Page’s absence isn’t the sole source of the problem here). Grinning Streak is such a frustratingly mild-mannered misfire of an album that I’m tempted to slap that silly grin right off of Ed’s face.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Limits
For all of my griping, I have to admit that the album opens with a pretty solid track. It doesn’t seem like it at first – the overly mechanical, mid-tempo pace does it no real favors, nor do the synthesized squiggles on top of it. Robertson’s lyrics seem to focus more on simplistic rhymes than on saying anything profound about his desire to dodge the audience’s expectations, but he nails it well enough on a chorus that unfortunately, only sets us up for later disappointment: “Hold on to your armrest/Don’t be alarmed, I’m gonna do my best/’Cause it’s a long haul, and I’m in this/And once in a while I exceed the posted limits.” That “once in a while” would be during this song’s bridge, when Kevin Hearn deviates from the synthetic plodding to give us an unexpected and even slightly unruly piano solo, which gives the song a bit of a jazzy spin as it slowly grinds its way to the finish line. It’s a clever moment of genre-hopping, in keeping with the band’s better material without trying to imitate any of it. And the piano solo doesn’t back off at all during the final chorus, making the last couple minutes of this song gloriously fun to listen to. More of that sort of organic attitude could have really helped the album, but alas, they’re about to fall back into predictable patterns mere seconds later.
Grade: A-

2. Boomerang
The lead single takes us on a bit of a time-warp back to the late 90s… but not to the clever lyricism and over-driven sound of the BNL’s better hits from the era. With a typical “four chords of pop” progression and just about the most utterly lazy pop-rock arrangement the band could have conceived, Robertson and the guys do the best Vertical Horizon impression that they know how, striving for the sort of vaguely pleasant tunefulness that you probably wouldn’t change the station on the first few times you heard it, but that doesn’t do anything to really make you notice the song, either. Robertson starts with an interesting analogy about messing up a relationship and deserving to be thrown away, but stubbornly coming back like a well-thrown boomerang. Unfortunately he mixes that metaphor with several that seem to be more about flying aircraft, which is indicative of his usual problems with undermining a song by not sticking to the otherwise intriguing premise he’s set up for it. The end result isn’t a song that makes you glad the Barenaked Ladies are back, or that even makes you really notice they’re still around. It’s the sort of song that seems designed to make you ask, “Who was this again?” when it’s slipped into a playlist of similar-sounding 90s songs at your local supermarket.
Grade: C

3. Off His Head
Alright, I’ll cop to not knowing a bit of British/Canadian slang here – apparently being “off your head” means that you’re crazy. In the context of this up-tempo, electronic vocal-assisted song, it’s in reference to a character’s father losing his temper over some unspecified mistakes made by one of his children. Again, specificity takes a backseat to simplistic rhyming, so most of the intended cleverness here is lost, but it’s a superficially catchy song with a rhythmic cadence that seems to elevate it beyond the typical pop/rock arrangement. What’s most frustrating here is the almost complete lack of vocal support. Hearn and the other guys backed Robertson up nicely enough in the last two tracks, but here, it seems like he’s all by himself in a chorus that calls for a little more oomph. Robertson hits a few high notes in the bridge that sound like they could have been parceled out to Page in the old days – when the two successfully shared a lead vocal and one of them jumped in unexpectedly to support the other, that was often some of the group’s best material.
Grade: B

4. Gonna Walk
In the annals of pop music, there are a great many songs that describe traveling great distances to win someone’s heart. The best ones give you the feeling that there’s some great mountain to be scaled, or some great lateral distance to be crossed – you get a sense of how far the destination is from the starting point. This half-hearted little acoustic song, on the other hand, makes it sound like the most ordinary and easygoing task that there is to accomplish. It’s nice to hear the band relying less on programming here, in a song that could easily fit into an impromptu, unplugged setlist. But the chorus is directionally confused: “Gonna walk, won’t quit, ’til I get to the bottom of your heart.” Getting to the bottom of something means solving a mystery, so wouldn’t digging have been a better metaphor than walking here? If it’s the literal bottom, why is her heart described like a territory with borders, rather than a cave or a valley or something with vertical relief? Clearly I’m reading way too much into these lyrics, but I don’t think that’s entirely unfair when some of Robertson’s own songwriting in past years has been able to communicate great amounts of relational complexity even in a few deceptively simple lines. Here, he sounds like a lovestruck tweenager under the naive illusion that the hack love poetry he writes in his journal is in any way original.
Grade: D

5. Odds Are
This one actually isn’t too terrible of an up-tempo, sassy, acoustic-driven pop song, if you can get over a bit of “too soon” humor that shows up rather early in its lyrics. The song aims to be an antidote for worry-warts like me, who are afraid to take chances and have adventures because of the risks involved. Even just simple stuff like flying – anything where there’s an illusion of more danger than the norm because you’re not the one in control of it. Robertson’s premise is that “The odds are that we will probably be alright”, and it’s delivered with a rhythmic cadence that makes it hard to resist singing along. But that first verse will undoubtedly strike some folks as being in poor taste: “Struck by lightning, sounds pretty frightening/But you know the chances are so small/Stuck by a bee sting, nothing but a B-thing/Better chance you’re gonna buy it at the mall.” While I’ll admit that “buy it at the mall” is a clever pun, it’s a poor choice of words for a band specifically from a city (Toronto) where a mall shooting happened a little over a year prior to this song’s release. I mean, imagine a band from New York singing “Better chance you’ll fall from a skyscraper” in the year 2002 and you’ll see how cringe-worthy it is. I’m not so easily offended (or perhaps I’m just from a city where gun violence in public places is depressingly common), so for the most part I still like the song. Still, they could have found a better way to refer to sudden and unexpected tragedy without pouring salt on such recent wounds.
Grade: B

6. Keepin’ It Real
The band delves into a bit of acoustic funk for this one, which would be fun if Tyler weren’t on auto-pilot (or outright replaced by a drum machine – at times it’s hard to tell) and if Robertson weren’t so hell bent on poking fun at outdated hip-hop slang and faux-urban posturing. He’s still singing rather than rapping here, stretching his voice out in cartoonish ways that would be amusing if he could make up his mind about the tone of the song. I can’t decide whether the heavily cliched “you can’t take it with you” message of the song is serious or tongue-in-cheek, which means that either the jokes here are too subtle or the chosen musical style and vaguely slang-y delivery are thoroughly out of place. Either way, it turns what should be a standout performance into a maddeningly average clunker of a song.
Grade: C

7. Give It Back to You
Now we’re in earnest, heartfelt ballad mode for sure… and it is boring as hell. Even when All in Good Time got too low-energy for its own good, I honestly don’t think it was ever this dull. Nothing about the arrangement or instrumentation here warrants commentary, so all we get is bland wallpaper music as Ed pines away about wanting to atone for his mistakes. His melody is plodding and repetitive, and though his promises to someone he’s hurt sound sincere, they completely fail to be profound in any way. “I will hold your heart when it breaks, and give it back to you.” Why would you want someone to give you back a broken heart? That makes no sense.
Grade: D

8. Best Damn Friend
The previous album had a handful of songs, most notably “You Run Away”, that got interpreted as veiled shots at Steven Page for walking out on the band and also on his longtime friendship with Ed Robertson. It was commonly read as one of those divorces due to “irreconcilable differences”, where the only real difference was that one person wanted out and the other didn’t. Whether that’s a fair assessment, I can’t say. But I can say that it seems like any song Robertson writes about conflict and/or reconciliation in the future, that doesn’t have a specifically romantic bent to it, will probably get interpreted as being about Page. For better or worse, that’s how a few folks have reacted to this song, which aside from the mild profanity in its chorus, is just about the most mild-mannered pop/rock song ever, with its cute little synth squiggles, half-hearted record scratches, and grumbly “I’m up to something sneaky” sorts of guitar riffs. As with many songs on this album, I can’t tell whether it’s meant to be serious or lighthearted. Ed’s promise to stick by a friend through thick and thin regardless of past offenses, if the person would just swallow his pride and come on back, is admirable. The occasional witty line like “Talk was cheap, ’til I started talking to professionals” comes across as genuinely clever. But the easygoing mood of the song really undermines its intent – if you feel so strongly about your relationship with someone that you have to add “damn” as a modifier to express the magnitude of your feelings, then the music backing up that sentiment should have a bit more gravity to it, don’t you think?
Grade: C-

9. Did I Say That Out Loud?
This isn’t the absolute worst track on the album, but it’s the last of the really terrible ones, and it may well be the album’s most embarrassing gaffe. Here, I know Robertson’s trying to be funny, and he just isn’t selling it. They’ve pretty much reused the same musical backdrop from “Odds Are”, but here they’ve bogged it down with a painfully unfunny use of a phrase that has not only become a sitcom cliche uttered whenever a character says something goofy or non-sequitur that the writers just wanted an excuse to slip in there, but that Robertson’s already used in a much funnier and more articulate BNL song. (Anyone remember “Fun & Games”? That was when this dude’s lyrics actually had some teeth to ’em.) Here, the premise is that he can’t help but let his feelings of complete devotion to someone slip when he knows it’s too early in the relationship to be saying that kind of stuff, so he covers it by acting like he blurted it out accidentally, and apparently this admission is supposed to HIGH-lariously awkward. With the ill-conceived synthetic “wub-wub” driving the rhythm, and yet another vaguely-hip-hop sort of chorus directory, it comes across as more sad than funny. It’s like your dad doing an impression of a Eugene Levy character from some turn-of-the-century comedy film, with the character in question doing his own impression of someone cool at the time, making the audience laugh at the sheer uncoolness of it, except your dad doesn’t realize the movie isn’t current and he’s parodying something that’s already been parodied to death, so instead of getting an amused chuckle out of his antics, you just cringe. These guys used to be pretty good at skewering pop culture, or at least playing up the goofier aspects of it to highlight that they didn’t care how nerdy they came across. But now it comes across as a fully mainstream band trying to reclaim those geek chic glory days, and only ending up sounding like a copy of a copy of a copy of something so faint that we forgot why it ever amused us in the first place.
Grade: D

10. Daydreamin’
Kevin Hearn finally takes the mic away from Ed here, turning in a quirky little song that goes absolutely overboard with his love of programming and synthesizer sounds. It’s not brilliant. But it’s not bad. As a matter of fact, his fantasizing about various professions that he might take up one day makes me wonder if this one was reject from Snacktime! the band’s album of songs written specifically for their kids. It just has that sort of wide-eyed, innocent sense of wonder to it, only slightly brought back down to Earth by the notion that there are naysayers telling Kevin not hold out hope for his lofty goals. It’s totally out of left field in comparison to the Ed songs that surround it, and sure, most of the songs Kevin and Jim provided on All in Good Time were non-sequiturs, too, but at least there were enough of them to feel like that was part of the band’s DNA. Here, it just feels like a track from one of Kevin’s side projects got thrown into an Ed solo album, and it’s weird. On the upside, Kevin is much more believable when he gets cutesy with his lyrics than Ed is. It’s probably just because Kevin’s voice is kind of a frail one, so I expect more innocence and vulnerability when he sings lead, whereas Ed is better at being a sharp-tongued smart-aleck, a quality that he fails to deliver on most of this album.
Grade: B

11. Smile
This song’s fully organic arrangement, brimming with accordion, banjo, and handclaps, among other things, makes it an instant winner… at least, if you don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics. I think Ed is going for some sort of toast to marital longevity here. That’s not a bad thing. He tries to get his long-time lover to crack a smile by reminding her of all the challenges they’ve overcome in the past and will overcome in the future, and his suggestions for solving them are cutesy, but somewhat believable (“And there’ll be walls, but I think we could/Knock ’em down for firewood”). The only real hiccup comes in the chorus, where he once again hints at having made a joke despite the fact that nothing here has the cadence of a joke – “Stay, won’t you, won’t you stay/I don’t mean that that way.” Wait – you don’t mean what what way? Was there a double entendre there that I missed? If so, why should you even have to apologize for it when you’ve already had three kids with the gal? If not, then what sort of misunderstanding are you worried about here? Whatever he said that could have been taken the wrong way, it’s lost on the rest of us. That takes the song down a peg, because the “punchline” of the chorus makes no sense, but it’s still a breezy two minutes and change of refreshingly earthy pop music.
Grade: B

12. Crawl
Time to close out the album on a long, triumphant anthem about overcoming adversity, inch by tedious inch. At nearly seven minutes, this is one of the longest songs in the BNL catalogue, but thanks to the unusual amount of ineptitude that Robertson’s been showing on this album, the song never really seems to hit its stride. The opening is intriguing enough, with Tyler setting up a slow, steady drum march, the kind of thing you’d expect to unfold into a big, emotional finish. Ed’s electric riffing remains in the “subtle” category for most of the song, giving it a serviceable melodic hook, but not much to really sink your teeth into. An interesting setup becomes a dull and tedious exercise by the time we realize that the chorus isn’t really gonna go anywhere, because there’s a noticeable lack of punch in his delivery of a mixed metaphor that doesn’t even make up for its ill-conceived nature by bothering to rhyme: “I’ll crawl/It’s really impressive, when I was just drowning/I’ll crawl, might as well be a butterfly.” If those were just verse lyrics, I could probably look past them in anticipation of a meaningful chorus. But since this is the central theme of the song, I have to point out that butterflies don’t crawl, they fly. Thus, they don’t tend to have as many issues with drowning, since gravity doesn’t tend to drag them into bodies of water as easily. Perhaps you meant “caterpillar”, Ed? A caterpillar crawling its way to safety from a deluge of rain might actually be considered an impressive feat. I get the overall mood of the song – it doesn’t take a genius to realize that it’s an ode to keeping your head above water and not giving up despite how hopeless the situation might seem. But dang it, I shouldn’t have to do the work of taking your awful metaphors and replacing them with better ones that might actually fit the flow of the song better. That’s the songwriter’s job. The band gets a few points for an unexpected ending due to the long fadeout that gradually melts into these long, soothing keyboard tones. It was vaguely nice at first, but then I realize, they’re not really adding any interesting texture to the song; they’re just dragging things out as a way of making it sound deeper than it really is. I listen to the BML for a lot of different reasons, but relaxing ambiance isn’t one of them.
Grade: C

BONUS TRACKS:
Maddeningly enough, the Canadian iTunes release of this album comes with three songs recorded during the same session but cut from the official tracklisting. Two of them are easily better than most of the album proper, which makes the filler material that bogs down the album’s midsection that much more baffling – why settle for such shlock when they had better songs in the round?

13. Blacking Out
Quite strangely, this one comes out swinging, with its ramshackle rhythm and its oddball melody, and a slight bit of distortion on Ed’s vocals to give them a bit more edge. The result is much like one of Steven Page’s testier songs from the Are Me/Are Men era (think “Angry People” or “Why Say Anything Nice?”), and while I’m not quite sure Ed can pull off that sort of “operatic manchild” performance, his attempt at is is easily more entertaining than most of the easygoing material that made the cut for the album. Self-deprecation and giddy, over-the-top bounciness help to balance out the aggressive nature of the song, and while it’s not perfect, it’s just messed up enough to put a smile on my face.
Grade: B

14. Fog of Writing
This is probably the single best bit of songwriting to emerge from the Grinning Streak sessions – largely because Ed’s writing about writing. That’s one of those wells that a songwriter has to be careful not to dip into with too much frequency, but the meta-referencing generally works in the BNL’s favor, so I’ll let it slide despite it not being a terribly original premise. Strong vocal melodies and driving rock beat help this apology, in the form of explaining that he’s gonna write someone a song to change her mind about him, to land with sincerity and a touch of self-aware humor. It compares favorably with punchier numbers from All in Good Time, like “I Have Learned” and “How Long”, though it actually comes out a little better in the lyrics department. If “Limits” weren’t so darn catchy, this song would be in the unusual position of being the best darn thing on the album, despite it not really being on the album at all.
Grade: A-

15. Who Knew?
Jim Creeggan’s practically been a stranger throughout this album. He’s normally one of the more noticeable bassists in mainstream pop/rock, due to a lot of the BNL’s material emphasizing his work on the upright, but you just don’t hear much of it on this album. This particular song is more of a cute little acoustic pop song, with Kevin’s slightly out-of-place synths standing out more than the bass, but Jim gets to sing lead here, and his vocals always have that sort of instantly calming, smooth-jazz sort of quality to them, that you’d think would just make a song generic, but it’s actually a welcome change of pace. The change of singer doesn’t automatically make the song brilliant – unfortunately Jim’s songwriting tends to be vague at best. So he doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park with his recollection of a relationship that couldn’t last because he couldn’t change her mind about… whatever they disagreed about. The cheery musical mood sort of betrays the sad lyrics, but I will say that Jim has a real knack for leading a compelling stack of vocal harmonies while the other guys back him up. That makes this song agreeable, albeit not one that I’d go back to terribly often.
Grade: B-

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Limits $1.50
Boomerang $.50
Off His Head $1
Gonna Walk -$.50
Odds Are $1.25
Keepin’ It Real $.25
Give It Back to You -$.50
Best Damn Friend $0
Did I Say That Out Loud? -$.25
Daydreamin’ $1
Smile $1.25
Crawl $.50
TOTAL: $6

Blacking Out $1.25
Fog of Writing $1.50
Who Knew? $.75
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACKS: $9.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Ed Robertson: Lead vocals, guitars, banjo
Kevin Hearn: Vocals, keyboards, synths, guitars, accordion, mandolin
Jim Creeggan: Vocals, electric and upright bass, guitars, percussion
Tyler Stewart: Drums, occasional vocals

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/0ZhCjeu9xZI5NAsrWnr8wv

USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.bnlmusic.com
http://www.facebook.com/barenakedladies

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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3 thoughts on “Barenaked Ladies – Grinning Streak: In which they fail to exceed the posted limits

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