It’s All About Choice
Barenaked Ladies Try to Be Everything to Everyone

I’m exhausted.

I’ve just finished working my 68th hour for this week, and I have to get up at 4:30 tomorrow morning and go back for more. They’re promising that all this overtime is a temporary situation, but I figure that once we prove we can work all these hours and still turn out the product, there’s no reason the company would ever change a workable system. “But you did it last week,” they’ll say. “Surely if you did it last week you can do it again this week. You don’t want to let the team down, right?”

So my apologies if this installment seems more scattered than most. To paraphrase some famous guy, I was dreaming when I wrote this, so forgive me if it goes astray.

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I got a lot of letters about last week’s column, as I expected. What I didn’t expect was that every one of them would be nice, articulate and well-thought-out. I expected some hurt and bitter ranting, and as it turns out, the only one who ranted was me.

Everyone who wrote in noted that they understood where I was coming from, even if they disagreed. Last week’s missive was an attempt to capture an emotion while it burbled just beneath the surface. My anger at the situation has subsided, and mostly turned to sadness and dull grief. I would probably not write the same column the same way now – it would be a little less “fuck you” and a little more “I’ll miss you,” which I think is what many of my correspondents wished for.

My site statistics went through the roof last week as well – more people read the last column than have ever visited my site in one week. While I wish it hadn’t been that one that brought people in, I’d like to thank everyone who read it and came back for more. And I’d especially like to thank all the fine folks who wrote in with their thoughts and feelings. I’m grateful for the chance to connect with you all.

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It’s strange to segue from that to this, but I have to get the silly music column up and started again sometime, so here goes:

I used to love the Barenaked Ladies.

This was before they became insanely popular in the mid-’90s, but I’m thankful for that popularity, if only because everyone knows who I’m talking about now when I say “Barenaked Ladies,” and I don’t have to explain that I’m not being dirty. BNL has always been an underrated band, though, even at the height of their popularity. They did it to themselves somewhat, with their carnival-esque concerts and their cartoonish videos for “One Week” and “Pinch Me,” but they’ve always been unfairly typed as a novelty band.

From the start, there’s always been more going on than just funny songs. For every “Be My Yoko Ono” on Gordon, their nifty debut album, there’s a strummed stunner like “What a Good Boy.” Bandleaders Steven Page and Ed Robertson are occasionally remarkable songwriters, and while their bread and butter is catchy, delightful pop, their lyrics often reveal a more knowing, even sinister edge.

The holy trilogy of BNL albums is Gordon, Maybe You Should Drive and Born on a Pirate Ship, three successive records that each expanded on the last in scope and sound. They’ve never written a sweeter song than “Am I the Only One,” or a catchier one than “Life, In a Nutshell,” both from Drive. They’ve also never explored their darker side to greater effect than on Pirate Ship, a consistently inventive tour full of creepy tales of obsession and self-destruction. (If “I Live With It Every Day” is the work of a novelty band, then I’ve got the wrong definition.)

Things just haven’t been the same since, unfortunately. Massive popularity hit with two huge singles, “The Old Apartment” and the insanely catchy “One Week.” And suddenly, it seemed like BNL forgot what they sounded like. 1998’s Stunt was chock full of novelty tunes, like “Who Needs Sleep” and “Alcohol,” and introduced a new, quirkier sound. By comparison, 2000’s Maroon fared better, but the sting seemed to be missing. It was more serious, but less heartfelt, with the exception of the exceptional “Helicopters.”

So what changed? Well, the most obvious difference is the addition of keyboardist Kevin Hearn, who’s been an easy whipping boy since he joined. Hearn is a real synths-and-samples guy, and his keyboard voices and lines account for much of the new music’s more plastic sound. He adds a quantifiable They Might Be Giants-ness to BNL, and unintentionally makes it more difficult to take the band seriously.

But laying all the blame on Hearn is just too easy, and not quite accurate. The tone of BNL music has shifted radically since the first few records, and it’s hard not to imagine that shift as a by-product of success. Since “The Old Apartment” hit big, the Ladies’ strong desire to be liked by everyone has been hard to miss. They seem incapable of simply tossing off wit these days – everything is rethought and revised and labored over until all trace of spontaneity is gone. BNL records are big productions now, with every note and every line in place.

The title of the band’s new album reflects this. It’s called Everything to Everyone, and all by itself the name carries with it a feeling of dread and expectation. It turns out that this new BNL is all about choice. There are no fewer than three versions of the album available – a standard version with all 14 songs, a limited edition with three bonus tracks, and a super-cool and super-expensive version with a loaded DVD. The super-cool version provides you with the greatest choice – three versions of the new album, depending on what type of band you want BNL to be.

It should be no surprise that Everything to Everyone is the band’s most layered, produced, sonically thick album to date. There are those, however, who will want still more layers of sound, and the Ladies have accommodated them: the DVD contains an impressive 5.1 surround sound audio mix of the entire album, giving it an almost epochal sheen. But wait, there’s more! For those like your faithful reviewer, who miss the intimate sound this band used to have, the DVD also contains 11 of the 14 new songs in stripped-down acoustic versions. And there’s video of the recording session as well, which the band set up as a mini-concert: BNL goes back to doing small, living-room-style shows, and You! Are! There!

It would be easy to be cynical about all this marketing, especially since the first three songs on the album live down to expectations. I never again need to hear another song about how much it sucks to be famous, especially one as vacuous and derivative as “Celebrity.” (It starts with the couplet, “Don’t call me a zero, I’m gonna be a hero,” and gets worse from there.) “Maybe Katie” is undoubtedly supposed to be rocking, but it’s just boring. And first single “Another Postcard” is a glib, forced novelty song that might have been amusing, if it weren’t exactly like every other glib, forced novelty song in their catalog.

But then the record takes off, and the idea that I’d ever really hate this band becomes ludicrous. The next 11 songs are the best set that the Barenaked Ladies have spun since Pirate Ship, easily. It’s clear that these songs were written because they were written, not because they would sell records, and that makes all the difference. On the whole, the album is bittersweet and remarkably intelligent, containing a bare minimum of silliness.

Highlights? Okay. “For You” is a delight, an acoustic folk shuffle with a great Ed Robertson melody. “Testing 1,2,3” is the most self-referential song the Ladies have done, wrapping a kiss-off to the fame of past years in a truly catchy pop ditty: “We recognize the present is half as pleasant as our nostalgia for, a past that we resented, recast and reinvented, until it’s how we meant it…” “Aluminum” is one of Page and Robertson’s prettiest songs, and I like that they acknowledge the alternate (read: correct) pronunciation: al-lu-mi-ni-um. “Upside Down” is as savage as this band gets, with Page snarling his way through an off-kilter verse structure. “Unfinished” is superb pop music, a la former BNL reference Brian Wilson. And silly song number two, “Shopping,” is a wonder of Euro-beats and “la-la-las” that was made for the 5.1 mix.

Surprisingly, one of the best songs didn’t make the record – “Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!” is only available on the DVD, but it’s a winner, far superior to “Maybe Katie” and “Celebrity.” But really, the Ladies finally did everything just about right on this album. Even Hearn restricts himself to tasteful piano when he would have used decorative synths before, and his songwriting contributions are extraordinary. Perhaps it’s the experience of hearing so many different versions of these songs in one package, but they feel lived-in, they feel real, for the first time in years.

So what does this ultimately mean for the Barenaked Ladies and their fans? Well, they haven’t quite recaptured the off-the-cuff delight of their early work, but they’ve made great strides toward becoming their own band again here. They’ve given you so many choices, so many entry points, because they really want you to hear these songs, and they have every right to be proud of them. It’s a strange paradox – Everything to Everyone is the band’s most personal set in ages, and it’s designed and marketed like a media event. The identity crisis is everywhere except the music.

And that’s what’s ultimately important. Whatever brings you to this album, be it the 5.1 mix on the DVD, the acoustic versions, the impressive packaging, or what have you, you’ll stick around because of the songs. However many marketing tricks the band and label need to do to get you to hear them, they’re worth it this time. If you’d written off the Barenaked Ladies, as I almost have many times, it’s time to come back. They’ve finally made something that’s again worth the term “criminally underrated.”

Next week, a special dedication.

See you in line Tuesday morning.