October 30, 2003

Barenaked Ladies: Northern Exposure

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Yep, it’s those Barenaked Ladies: the same zany quintet of Canadian rockers who were rapping about wasabi, samurai, and vanilla (“it’s the finest of the flavors”) when you were still in Middle School. And, sadly, that’s likely how they’ll be remembered: engrained in the collective memory of pop history as a bunch of talented and witty songwriters who, despite some substantial radio success, never really amounted to much more than a novelty act from the north. Yet their new album, recently released via Reprise, makes a compelling case to the contrary. Everything to Everyone is a spectacular showcase of the sophisticated humor, smart social commentary, and excellent songwriting that many critics have been harping on for years — but that never seemed to garner the group the commercial success they deserve.

The songs on Everything to Everyone are most notable for their ability to combine honesty and sincerity with a good dose of humor. Tracks like “Celebrity” and “Shopping” are deft swipes at societal excess, while “Next Time” is a touching testament to longing for a second chance. But all this mature and somber reflection doesn’t mean that BNL has lost their touch for jangly alternative rock. “Maybe Katie,” the album’s first single, features an infectious hook and lovely breezy vocal harmonies. “Testing 1,2,3” is another rocker that shows off the band’s penchant for anthemic choruses.

And of course, as is the case with every BNL outing, Everything to Everyone features the seemingly requisite bizarre track. This time around, “Another Postcard” fills the role admirably with a story to which many of us simply cannot relate. That is, of course, receiving anonymous postcards from overseas featuring chimpanzees in various suggestive poses and engaged in a wide range of lascivious chimp activities.

Like most of the BNL albums that have come before it, Everything to Everyone is slickly, but tastefully, produced. This time around, the credit goes to Ron Aniello (Guster, Lifehouse) who thankfully steers the band away from the stiff and uncomfortable posture they assumed on the 2001 commercial and artistic failure Maroon. Their new outing sounds much looser and more relaxed, as if some of the pressure to repeat previous successes has been diminished.

Principal songwriters Steven Page and Ed Robertson are in top form. Their vocal delivery is, as usual, wonderfully wry and quirky. The rest of the band also turns in a set of fine performances. In fact, the record’s only throwaway tracks are those on which the group dabbles with electronics and samples — an ill-advised and regrettable experiment.

It seems that as they’ve grown older, BNL is looking at things differently than they have in the past. Their humor, once used simply for its own sake, is now employed to target and examine personal failings, societal shortcomings, and some of the absurdities of everyday life. BNL has a whole new perspective on things — and that perspective is fresh, fun, poignant, and, most importantly, recommended listening.


Archived article by Mathew Gewolb