Trying to Turn the Page
The Remaining Barenaked Ladies Carry On

I am a Barenaked Ladies fan.

I know this is not the most fashionable thing to admit, but I can’t help it. I love this band. I remember first hearing Gordon, while in college, and responding equally to the goofy joy of “If I Had $1,000,000” and “Be My Yoko Ono,” and the more serious leanings of “What a Good Boy” and “The Flag.” Gordon gets a lot of stick, but I think it’s a fun little album, still. (And even now, whenever I say hello to my cat, Kitty, I have to follow it with a high-sung “Hello Kitty, yeah!”)

I followed the Canadian quintet as they rose from obscurity to mild fame to worldwide notoriety, and got better and better with each record. Born on a Pirate Ship contains “The Old Apartment,” yes, but it also has songs about accidental death and suicide and shoe boxes full of lies and people using people and then discarding them. And yes, Stunt has “One Week,” the main evidence for the prosecution that BNL is a novelty act. But it also has catchy little tunes about cross-dressing and auto-erotic asphyxiation and mutual masturbation. There’s some dark, dark stuff etched in these grooves.

I reacted negatively to Kevin Hearn at first – he replaced Andrew Creeggan on keyboards, and brought a more plastic, synthy sound to the mix. But I think he’s been a good fit for the band, and his textures meant a lot to Everything to Everyone, the band’s last great album. There’s some not-quite-funny stuff on it, like “Another Postcard,” but a deepening maturity informs most of it. “Aluminum” and “Unfinished” are examples of the marvelous, shimmering pop on offer here.

So yeah, I’m a Barenaked Ladies fan. Which is why it’s been so sad to watch them fall apart. The double album Barenaked Ladies Are Me/Are Men contained maybe three good songs amongst its 29, and the less said about children’s album Snacktime the better. I think the Ladies had been struggling against their reputation as fun-loving jesters, wanting desperately to be taken seriously as artists and writers of straightforward pop. The problem is, the straightforward pop they wrote was bland and forgettable, and the “fun” stuff sounded forced and phony.

And then Steven Page left. Page is the man with the most distinctive voice, and the one responsible for most of the dark lyrics I’ve liked so much over the years. I understand it was an acrimonious parting, and I imagine it would have to be, to end 20 years of friendship and musical partnership. I don’t think there’s any arguing that Page was at least 50 percent of the soul of this band, and his voice was one of the main things that drew people in.

The remaining Ladies have decided to go on without him, and listening to All in Good Time, their first Page-less album, I can’t help but conclude this was a bad idea. Struggling through this record actually makes me sad, so I don’t really want to dwell on it. Just a few thoughts.

The cover tells the story well. It’s a muted black-and-white shot of the four of them, looking pensive. Other pictures find them with the same sad-sack looks on their faces – there are no smiles here, and it strikes me that these pictures are a long way from the beach-ball fun of Gordon’s cover art. The record itself follows suit. It’s almost entirely straightforward pop-rock, much of it is slow and dreary, and most of the lyrics are about Page, and how angry they are that he left, and how much better they will be without him.

The opener is called “You Run Away.” I’m not sure it gets more obvious than that. The song is relentlessly downbeat, has no chorus, and takes the band’s more mature sound to its depressing extreme. The band does occasionally take the tempo up, but not often, and nothing here could be considered fun. (Except for one misbegotten track, and we’ll get to that in a minute.) Ed Robertson sings lead on most of these tracks, as he should – he’s always been the underrated half of the main BNL songwriting team – but Kevin Hearn and bassist Jim Creeggan take the mic a few times each as well. The result is more disjointed than democratic, alas, and I find myself missing Page’s inimitable voice.

But that’s over, and if there were any chance of reconciliation, this album probably put the last nail in that coffin. In addition to “You Run Away,” in which Robertson says “I tried, but you tried harder, I lied, but you lied smarter,” the band takes aim at Page in “I Have Learned,” and “How Long,” and most pointedly “Golden Boy.” In that one, Robertson urges Page to “hang your hat at someone else’s house.”

If all this woe-is-me rage feels like it might get monotonous, well, it does. Hearn and Creeggan are there to lighten the mood once in a while, and Hearn’s sweet “Watching the Northern Lights” at least ends things on a hopeful note. But the Ladies play everything straight, and write everything as if they’ve decided to become Lifehouse. As boring folk-pop goes, this isn’t awful, but it isn’t memorable either, even if producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda gives everything a rawer, more stripped-back sound.

Are there high points? Sure. These guys are too good at writing catchy pop songs to not let a few slip through. The best of these is “Every Subway Car,” a tale of love and graffiti set to crunchy electric guitars. “Ordinary” is a typical Ed Robertson ballad, but it’s been a while since I’ve heard one of those, and this is a nice one. “The Love We’re In” is a pretty waltz. I also like the buzzing guitars in “Summertime,” although that song isn’t as much of a romp as you’d expect.

Balancing all that off, unfortunately, is “Four Seconds,” the one moment of aren’t-we-zany “fun” on this album, and if the four remaining Ladies want to continue, they should curb this impulse immediately. Over a lame spaghetti Klezmer backdrop, Robertson half-heartedly raps about Bill Monroe and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I believe it’s drummer Tyler Stewart who has the honor of shouting out the chorus (“One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi four!”). This should be a hoot, but it’s unspeakably lame, and it stands out as this album’s most painful miscalculation.

But really, my problem with All in Good Time is that it’s the sound of a band I love limping towards the finish line. They make no bones about the difficult struggles they went through to make this thing, and I’m glad they managed it, but the record itself isn’t worth the pain. I had originally written a much snarkier version of this review, but I went with this instead, because this album doesn’t make me angry. It just makes me depressed. There’s virtually nothing here I want to return to, no moment that makes me glad the Ladies have continued on without Page. It just makes me sad to hear them reduced to this. I wanted to love this, but I can’t.

* * * * *

A letter from John Oates to Darryl Hall:

Hall! Hey, it’s Oates!

What’s going on? Not much here. Just got back from walking the dog around the retirement community. Man, this old pup is gonna wear me out before long. Hard to believe we’re in our 60s now, isn’t it? Time takes no time at all. (Hey, that sounds like a song!)

So listen, I’m writing you this because something strange is happening, and I can’t make sense of it on my own. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Hall, but… we’re cool again.

No, I promise you, this is true. The kids are singing our songs again. Did you see 500 Days of Summer? I expected just some nice romantic movie, and I’ll tell you, all the time travel tricks and stuff confused me, but my son loved it. So I’m watching this, and halfway through, there’s this dance scene, and guess what song they used? “You Make My Dreams.” I nearly choked on my buttered popcorn, and Aimee had to give me the Heimlich maneuver right there. It was a scene.

But I just couldn’t believe it. I haven’t heard that song in… what, 20 years? If that had been just a one-time thing, I wouldn’t even be writing you, but my son John brought home something else the other day. You’re going to want to sit down for this. It’s an album by two kids calling themselves The Bird and the Bee, and it’s called Interpreting the Masters. And guess who the masters are? Us!

I asked John about it, and he says The Bird and the Bee are cool. The Bird is Inara George, and the Bee is Greg Kurstin, who’s in some band called Geggy Tah. I swear, Hall, the names these kids come up with. What would have been wrong with calling the band George & Kurstin? Nothing, that’s what. But anyway, they’ve made a couple of records, had their songs played in some popular movies, and toured with Lily Allen. They’re cool.

And they like us! They really like us. I was worried about it at first, like maybe they were doing that irony thing people their age like to do. There’s nothing worse than music that winks at you, am I right? Just say something straightforward, write a good hook, and you have a song. I don’t know, I guess I expected this Bird and Bee to think our old stuff was goofy. A song like “Kiss on My List” doesn’t work unless you mean it, you know?

But Hall, you won’t believe this. These versions are great! The Bird and the Bee sound to me like what we thought the future would be in 1970. They’re kind of lounge-y, kind of soul-y, and they do everything with keyboards and drum machines. Inara George has a great voice, like an old-time torch singer. And listen, they do “I Can’t Go for That,” and “Sara Smile,” and “Maneater,” and “She’s Gone,” and “Private Eyes,” and they treat them like their own children.

I don’t know how to say this, exactly. They reinvent these songs, but they treat them with respect at the same time. Even “Maneater,” which even I think is a little silly, they do with style. They love these songs. I think they might love them as much as we do. I teared up a little at “One on One.” They do it so well. Hall, man, you have to hear this.

Another thing, too. The Bird and the Bee seem to have the same arrangement we did, where the pretty one goes out front and sings, and the smart one makes all the music and gets no credit for it. Haha! Just a little joke there. But you know it was all Oates, man. All Oates.

Anyway, Hall, we have that tour starting up soon, and I think we’re gonna see a lot more kids coming out to our shows. So I’m sure you know what I’m thinking. You grow the hair back, and I’ll get my mustache on again, and we’ll do this for real. Hall & Oates, taking on the world again. It’s our time, man. Our time.

Okay, I gotta go get some more Metamucil. But let’s do this.


* * * * *

And now, the next installment in my top 20 of the 2000s.

#9. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001).

Last week, I mentioned how difficult it was to pick an Aimee Mann album for this list. By contrast, it was all too easy to choose Rockin’ the Suburbs to represent Ben Folds. Of his three solo albums this decade, this is easily the best. Songs for Silverman is good, but a little too sedate, and Way to Normal isn’t as bad as I first thought, but is still his slightest and weakest.

I’ve been a fan of this piano-playing pure-pop genius since the first Ben Folds Five album, way back in 1995. The airwaves were ruled then by angry guitar-mopers whining about their heartbreak and addictions over slow, sludgy, joyless dirges. In the middle of that, here comes this skinny guy from North Carolina who plays piano like Elton John (but 1970s Elton John, not Disney movie Elton John), and has an uncanny knack for dazzling melody. These songs were smart, but they were also a lot of fun, and the playing… man, Folds can play.

The Five made three splendid records before splitting in 2000, and Folds went it alone one year later with Rockin’ the Suburbs. At the time, I was worried about it, but I shouldn’t have been – he just kept on doing what he does, writing fantastic pop songs and playing the hell out of them. Looking back on it now, it’s amazing to me how many stone cold classic songs can be found on this record. “Zak and Sara.” “Still Fighting It.” “Fred Jones Part 2.” The Luckiest.” And of course, the title track. They’re all here.

This is the first and, so far, only album on which Folds played almost all of the instruments, so in a lot of ways, Rockin’ the Suburbs is the most pure record he’s done. It strikes his trademark balance between snark and sentiment, often in the same song. But what he does here better than he’s ever done is tell stories. On Suburbs we’re introduced to a plethora of new Folds characters: Annie, Zak, Sara, Stan, Lisa, Cathy and Lucretia, plus we get a reappearance by Fred Jones (from “Cigarette,” on BFF’s Whatever and Ever Amen album). Over classic pop backdrops, Folds spins these tales, and the people in them seem real.

Then there’s the suburban rage-rocker at the heart of “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” still the finest piece of satire on the whole rap-rock thing I’ve heard. It’s somewhat jarring on this album, since it’s the one piece of unbridled whimsy, but it makes its points well: “I got shit running through my brain, so intense that I can’t explain, all alone in my white-boy pain, shake your booty while the band complains…” It’s this side of Folds that dominated Way to Normal, and his satirical knives were dulled by that point, but here, this song simply rocks.

Most of Suburbs, however, is sweet and sad. In “Annie Waits,” a jilted woman vows never to hang on a man’s call again. “Zak and Sara” details one teen girl’s battle with mental illness, all while her friend plays her favorite song on guitar. I can hardly listen to “Fred Jones,” as it’s about an old newspaper man being shown the door after 25 years. But I still love “The Ascent of Stan,” a rollicking tale of a man who sells out his hippie dreams.

Amidst these stores are two deeply personal songs, among the most beautiful Folds has ever written. “Still Fighting It” is a letter to his son Louis, explaining that it’s “so hard to grow up, but everybody does,” and concluding with a plaintive apology: “You’re so much like me, I’m sorry.” And “The Luckiest” may well be Folds’ prettiest song, a simple declaration of love told in some delightfully off-kilter ways. If he’s written one song that will stand the test of time, it’s probably this one.

But it’s not my favorite. No, my favorite is the forgotten gem at track eight, “Carrying Cathy.” For my money, Folds has never penned a more moving story, and the way he gives the title new meaning and resonance at the end is the mark of a master. It’s this side of Folds that I hope novelist Nick Hornby ignites through their collaboration, Picture Window, slated for later this year. When Folds is on, as he is on “Carrying Cathy,” he is one of the finest songwriters anywhere.

I’ve said it before, but some day, Ben Folds is going to make an inescapably great, absolutely perfect pop album. He hasn’t quite done it yet – a couple of similar-minded popsters actually ranked higher on this list – but Rockin’ the Suburbs is the closest he’s come. And to be honest, he didn’t miss by much here. This album is non-stop wonderful, striking the delicate balance between the silly and heartwarming sides of Folds’ personality. I hope we hear its like from him again.

* * * * *

But wait, there’s more. We’re not quite done yet, because it’s time for the First Quarter Report.

For newbies, every year I keep a running top 10 list, swapping in new albums as they come out. I post the final list in the last weeks of December, but I thought it might be fun to give readers (that’s you guys!) a glimpse of the list in progress throughout the year.

So at the end of each quarter, I reveal what my top 10 list would look like, were I forced to post it then. What follows is the standings at the end of March 2010, and I have to say, this year has been extraordinary so far. I even have a few worthy records that are disqualified from the list: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back and Johnny Cash’s American VI: Ain’t No Grave. Both are covers albums, and therefore ineligible. I have some honorable mentions, too, but I won’t bore you with them. Suffice it to say, if it continues like this, I’ll be a happy (but broke) music fan at the end of the year.

Here’s the list, as it stands right now:

#10. The Magnetic Fields, Realism.
#9. OK Go, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky.
#8. Final Fantasy, Heartland.
#7. Fair, Disappearing World.
#6. Beach House, Teen Dream.
#5. Shearwater, The Golden Archipelago.
#4. Corinne Bailey Rae, The Sea.
#3. BT, These Hopeful Machines.
#2. Yeasayer, Odd Blood.
#1. Joanna Newsom, Have One on Me.

So yeah, 2010, keep it up. I have high hopes for the second quarter, which will see new ones from Rufus Wainwright, Aqualung, the Hold Steady, Minus the Bear, the New Pornographers, Keane, the Dead Weather, the Black Keys, Rooney, Teenage Fanclub, and Okkervil River (backing up Roky Erickson, who is, remarkably, still alive). It looks pretty good all laid out like that, doesn’t it?

Next week, some live albums from Pet Shop Boys, the Weakerthans and Dan Wilson. And probably some thoughts on the 11th Doctor, who makes his debut the day before Easter. Thanks to Mike Lachance for inspiring the Bird and the Bee review.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.