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BARENAKED LADIES

Gordon
Rating: 9
   There's a lot of discussion on other reviewers' pages about which album qualifies as the "best debut record" in rock and roll history (top contenders are often Led Zeppelin or the Doors). All those arguments can be settled now, as Gordon clearly takes the honor. On their first record, Barenaked Ladies somehow managed to arrive at a combination of a unique sound, crafty arrangements, and brilliant songwriting that stands out as one of the finest records of its decade, a summation of the middle-class mind and a genuine hoot as well.
   (To be fair, the album might sound a little better if you make a tape removing your three least favorite songs — any three, although mine were "I Love You", "The King of Bedside Manor", and "Crazy" — because the group was extremely generous in the set list, providing a whopping 15 songs, some of which may not tickle your fancy as well as the rest.)
   The group had several unique assets that make this album the winner it is. The first was a genuinely innovative ensemble: although their songs are well within the pop-folk tradition, they're played with country-style acoustic guitar, snazzy Broadway-style drumming, a liquid string bass, and, crucially, latin percussion. The result is a fascinating melange of rhythms that give even the relatively plain-vanilla chord sequences a vivacious attack. The vocals on top are quite luscious as well — Steven Page has a voice of not only great range but deep texture, capable of crooning, belting, or delivering a punchline, and the harmonies throughout take unexpected turns into jazz territory.
   The other important part of the group's appeal is their lyrical approach. For lack of a better word, I'll call this "honor student rock." Throughout the album, one gets the sense that not only are these guys pretty bright, but they're obsessed with popular culture, and are trying to work out how a productive life can be led reconciling the two. It's a point of view I haven't heard elsewhere, and, probably because of demographics, it resonates with me more than most introspective lyrics. At times it's self-indulgent, but that's to be forgiven in young men just out of school. One hoped they would outgrow it, but instead it ossified into self-righteousness that wasn't corrected until Maroon, on which they wrecked their chance at maturity by opting for hackneyed AOR arrangements.
   But on Gordon, everything works. "Enid" is a thumping soul number, with horns blaring and violins soaring, but the lyrics quickly ground the listener in the saddest love song of all, young love lost: "I took a beating when you wrote me those letters / And every time I remembered the taste of your lipgloss." But there's always a twist: "But maybe it's fair to say there was a lack of communication / I took a phone message, oh and speaking of communication, oh, / And Enid, Enid you caught a cold." The end of the song is a marvel of ensemble performance: while Page sings the main chorus, Ed Robertson chips in with a counterpoint consisting of the bridge melody, and Andy Creeggan contributes yet a third vocal line, and then the whole band hits accents on the one, seven and eleven beats.
   "Brian Wilson" may be the epitome of the band's approach: while plenty of singers go on about feeling depressed, only a true rock and roll maven would find the story of the Beach Boys' leader to be the most appropriate simile. The melody is awfully catchy, with its sudden swoops up the scale ("now I am") and downward arches in the verse, and the band really shines here, with Jim Creeggan's loping bass anticipating the downbeat and Andy's congas propelling the coda.
   "Be My Yoko Ono" seems to have cemented, for better or worse, the groups reputation as a comedy act — yet, it's not all that funny, except in the brief middle section when the groups wails like the tune's eponym. Rather, it's a cutting putdown, comparing a lover's devotion to a "ball and chain", and suggesting "If there's someone you can just shove out, then do so." Such is the concision and wit of these lyrics that they're able to provide a critical analysis of John Lennon's solo career, suggest the limits of cynicism in the face of love, and demean a lover in one couplet: "If I was John and you were Yoko I would gladly give up musical genius / Just to have you as my very own personal Venus." Brilliant work on the vocal harmonies throughout, as a two-part lead line fades into further harmonies in a doo-wop style backing the chorus, and the quick strumming and peppy congas keep everything hopping.
   The strength of having a string bass in the group is highlighted on "Wrap Your Arms Around Me," a spooky breakup song vamping over groaning bass and spare percussion, and "The Flag", which features a gentle acoustic strum under an incredible arco bass line that alternately supports the vocal or plays a counterpoint. The words of "The Flag" are another stunning example of storytelling through the thoughts of the characters. The coda is a remarkable piece of music: as a litany of quotidian objects that simultaneous represent freedom and oppression (depending on how you view your surrounding) proceeds, a fantastic barbershop harmony emerges, fading out into unresolved polyphony that perfectly reflects the tension in the story. Brilliant.
   Another funny number — sort of — is "If I Had a Million Dollars"; vamping along with a sprightly piano and intentionally clod-hopping bass, the gang reels off the ridiculous gag lines that are now famous: "I'd buy you some art (a Picasso or a Garfunkel)", but each chorus ends with the pathetic, "I'd buy your love." These guys are never one to leave an emotional stone unturned.
   The most powerful song of all, though, is "What a Good Boy," which explores a theme I've never heard before: the fear of failing to live up to expectations. Page's phrasing, out of breath one moment, ponderous the next, is a work of art itself, and the subtle touches the band applies throughout, like the cascading piano line into a groaning bass lick, enhance the mood greatly. And how precisely the lyrics sum up the pressure from parents on their children: "This name is the hairshirt I wear". That's poetry if I ever heard it.
   Throughout the rest of Gordon, the group displays similarly wicked humor, impressive chops and thrilling arrangements. This is music that strikes at the heart of the middle-class experience and uplifts, questions, and undermines every platitude you've ever heard. It's one of a kind — even the band itself has never duplicated it — and an imperishable demonstration of musical genius.

READER COMMENTS

  • From Rick Wolfe: Thanks for giving the Ladies their long-deserved praise.

    Complaints, criticisms, or bribery reviews: Contact me!
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