Barenaked Ladies – Grinning Streak – Album Review

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Grinning Streak - Barenaked LadiesThe Barenaked Ladies are celebrating their 25th year as a band, a multi-platinum pop band to be exact, and the band is back on the road for the Last Summer on Earth 2013 tour. Playing in Bangor, Maine, at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion on July 21st, BNL is appearing with Ben Folds 5 and Guster. This is a show you don’t want to miss, people. Come on down, listen to some nice friendly rock and roll, and get happy.

To make it even better, the Barenaked Ladies released their latest album, “Grinning Streak,” on June 4th, and asked Maine Music News to take a listen. Well, of course, we’d love to! In an effort to provide full disclosure to our readers, we must admit that we have a secret BNL weapon. We are personal friends with Heidi. She may be the biggest BNL fan in Eastern Maine. Seriously. Last year when Heidi helped us out with the live review of the Last Summer on Earth Tour 2012, she remarked that her dream job would be touring with these guys – whatever they need, she’ll do it. Why would she leave her lucrative executive position to tour with BNL to probably sell t-shirts? Heidi says, “because their music makes me happy.” I can’t argue with that logic.

BNL “makes me happy.” Huh? I started thinking. Does music make me happy? Does it put a big grin on my face? BNL music has that exact effect on Heidi. She beams. I love music, I love everything about music, I certainly have an emotional response to music, but I can’t say that I know a band that makes me actually bust out in a grin. Okay, I’m more hard rock and outlaw country – not exactly genres known for giggles. How does a band make you happy? So down the BNL rabbit hole I go…

I decided to see what Strombo had to say. Here’s a video of Barenaked Ladies frontman, Ed Robertson, with George Stroumboulopoulos, a Canadian talkshow host.

The Barenaked Ladies have created a signature sound, to say the least. Known for smart, articulate twists and turns in their lyrics, and a bouncy pop feel, they have carved out a career by giving listeners a slightly off balance view of reality all set to incredibly well-designed melodies and interesting production. While not everyone can gently slide into their music and feel at home, there is a lot there to appreciate. Growing up on the border with Canada, I was a kid steeped in Canadian music, literature, news, and tv – I probably saw every episode of The Beachcombers, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you all the Brady Bunch kids. I can hear all the great North of the Border elements in BNL – their style, their approach, their guts, and their subject matter. They are so good at what they do that, based on my research, they’ve painted themselves into a pretty tight barenaked box.

A box? Yes, a box. Imagine having 25 years of fan base. Now imagine being artists and wanting to expand and grow. Now imagine having all the armchair music quarterbacks sitting around bitching about your songs because they are either a) not like your signature style, b) too much like your signature style, or c) just not as great as “Alcohol” or “If I had a Million Dollars.” That is a box. Now imagine being brave enough to head to the recording studio ready to make an album that is built on growth, maturity, musical expansion, and doesn’t just piss off your fans. That is what BNL’s “Grinning Streak” seems to have accomplished.

Grinning Streak” walks that tightrope faced by bands with a history of hits and a signature style. These songs balance the whimsy with exploration of some new, interesting forays into electronica and heavier mood. BNL isn’t trapped here by their success to take serious subjects and “make it all better.” While they certainly haven’t embraced gloom, they have allowed the possibility of a gray day. Musically, they are still the masters at gliding through textures, tempos, and styles to design songs that embody a mood, a circumstance, an emotion we know in our hearts and guts. Each cut is a somatic experience – able to locate in the listener’s body, able to make you tap your feet, bounce along to the beat, or melt into a haze – a sort of Floydian foray for happy people. Fascinating, really. “Grinning Streak” is a nice collection of pop vignettes and pieces of being human. Whether it makes you happy or not is up to you.

Heidi came over Sunday morning, had a cup of coffee, let one of the pugs sit in her lap, and we kicked back and enjoyed “Grinning Streak.” Here is our take, track by track.

#1 – Limits ~ This felt familiar, and I liked the electronica and the sniff of 80’s alternative. “Grinning Streak” is off to a great start with that classic BNL twisting of language to create lyrics that make a ride in the car something thoughtful. I wanted to roll down the window.

#2 – Boomerang ~ As I said earlier, listening to this band is a somatic experience, and I can prove this because Heidi was bouncing in her chair and grinning 15 seconds into “Boomerang.” This song is, as she puts it, “what BNL should sound like.” The first single from the album, “Boomerang” is peppy, full, and has all the sentiments any girl would love to hear.

#3 – Off His Head ~ This is family drama BNL style. Clearly masters at designing theatrical tone in a three minute pop song, “Off His Head” created enough teenage adrenaline for me to make me nervous. The VSS (vinyl skipping sensation) of the chorus takes a bit to embrace, but it all works.

#4 – Gonna Walk ~ Full of the singsonginess that Heidi craves, “Gonna Walk” puts your mood back on the bright side. I particularly enjoy the tempo shifts in both melody and vocals that take the listener’s ear for a jaunty walk. Of course, the rest of you has to follow and bounce along, too. A sweet, happy love song.

#5 – Odds Are ~ Great guitar and stomping starts this groovy, uplifting, and nice bouncy pop rock. Everything is balanced here, like good wine. This is like danceable Dr. Seuss.

#6 – Keepin It Real ~ Using a chain gang rhythm, this is darker, edgier, and a bit desolate without being angry. Since we were working without liner notes, I’m guessing this is an eco-activist theme, maybe aimed at the tar sands or just overall destruction of the planet. Farley Mowat is proud. Great guitar riff and heavy-footed stomp bass! Heidi wasn’t quite so cheery, but I really enjoyed the character of this one.

#7 – Give It Back to You ~ Slower and pinched, thin even, this song is possible to overlook. But don’t. The depth of sentiment here is in a plain brown wrapper, disguised, but significant. The lyrics are gritty – “anyone can walk on water just before they drown” – and sweet – “I will atone for my mistakes, I will hold your heart when it breaks, and give it back to you” – all at once. This could be one of my favorites from the collection.

#8 – Best Damn Friend ~ Another bouncy BNL album tune with clever lyrics. This one may take a few listens to sink in.

#9 – Did I Say that Out Loud ~ Back to peppy and fun, a love song, BNL style. Heidi hit it on the head when she said that BNL is clean cut, sincere, just a little nerdy, and trustworthy. For people who face uncertainty and general crap on a daily basis (Heidi), these songs feel like a sweet, safe interlude. She was heading home to download the album so she could play it while driving between meetings. (It is either that or she calls me and we plot how to overthrow the dipshits running this planet. Go ahead – Google, tell the NSA that.)

#10 – Daydreamin’ ~ I liked this funky little electronic rock piece of hazy dreaminess, and I like it more the more I listen. Vocals are handled by keyboardist Kevin Hearn, and there is a little vocal techno distortion to round out the full effect. Again, BNL doesn’t just write songs, they create vignettes and the listener just has to walk in and enjoy the mood. Could I get this in a 40 minute version with a nice Primitivo?

#11 – Smile ~ Country Canada (CBC Sunday mornings, remember?) through and through with a solid nod to the Traveling Wilburys. Again, no liner notes, but I think that is an accordion, and in comparison to the pop-cowboy-crap coming out of Nashville’s darlings – I’ll take this.

#12 – Crawl ~ Nice, smooth, full guitar work opens the last track on “Grinning Streak.” A litany of swimming lessons metaphors, indicative of life’s struggles, flesh out the verses. This is heavy on the “you can do it” rather than “it’s going to be fine,“ but life is like that. Expansive and moody with a pounding, forward drum beat and bass, this is well done but not happy. “I’ll crawl. It’s really impressive when I was just drowning.” Heidi said maybe she’d skip this track on her way to the next meeting.

The Barenaked Ladies have managed to do create another great collection of songs, and they called it “Grinning Streak.” Aptly named, in my opinion. Combining whimsy with wit, they strike a nice balance of mood here. I can’t do all shining happy people songs because I’m just not that kind of girl. I need some grit and some edge – I found some here. I also found clever bending of the rules to create mood and attitude – I like that. Music should be intelligent and fun – evidently the Barenaked Ladies already know that.

See you when you get to town, guys! Heidi will be in the 6th row – she’s the pretty one with the huge grin and the husband who just wants to see her smile.

 

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