CD Review: Barenaked Ladies, “All in Good Time”

In a 1995 interview with Canada’s MuchMusic, Barenaked Ladies’ vocalist Steven Page attempted to describe his band’s new philosophy following the departure of keyboardist/percussionist Andy Creeggan. For a while, he said, the band was trying to figure out how to operate as four-fifths of a group. But, he explained, they soon realized they didn’t have to look at themselves as four-fifths; they could merely redefine the equation as four-fourths. This time around, though, it’s different. Most fans of the group didn’t lose much sleep over Andy’s exit, but it’s absolutely impossible not to notice the gaping hole left by Page, who recently quit the band he co-founded in 1988 with vocalist/guitarist Ed Robertson. All in Good Time (2010) is the sound of a band undergoing re-invention after losing half its heart.

It’s an understatement to say that Page’s absence profoundly impacts the group’s dynamic, and it does so in both positive and negative ways. Previous Barenaked Ladies albums featured an almost-even split on lead vocals between Page and Robertson, with a few errant tracks from other band members; Following Page’s exit, Robertson is left singing nine out of 14 tracks, with the remaining five going to multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn and bassist Jim Creeggan — more than any other album. While the two may have benefited from this somewhat more democratic setup, it’s hard to listen to the entirety of All in Good Time without identifying at least three or four songs that clearly wouldn’t have made the cut had Page remained in the group. These include Creeggan’s “I Saw It,” which sounds like what happens when you spend too much time around Guster, and Hearn’s “Another Heartbreak,” which unfortunately proves once again that lead vocals in a higher register just aren’t his forte. However, Hearn’s quirky “Jerome” (sung in his gentle lower range) is a highlight of the album — a song that might not have wound up on the disc had Page remained in the group. Same with Creeggan’s absolutely gorgeous “On the Lookout” which, much like Barenaked Ladies Are Me‘s “Peterborough and the Kawarthas” and Snacktime‘s “Polywog in a Bog,” proves that he deserves more time in the lead vocal spotlight.

And what about Robertson, the sole leader of the group? He’s had quite a couple of difficult years himself, between Page’s departure, a plane crash and the death of his mother. And he’s pissed — especially with his former best friend. If you don’t hear it in the album’s first single “You Run Away” (a song whose lyrics were bitterly paraphrased by Page on Twitter), you can certainly hear it the rocking “Golden Boy,” with biting lyrics such as “There’s nobody left to make you run” and “One of these days, you’re going to wake up wondering how it went down/Then, in a daze, you’re going to make up something and wallow around in your room.” While it’s uncomfortable to bear witness to the dissolution of a 23-year friendship, it’s hard to deny that it’s resulted in a solid song or two.

And that’s the thing about this entire album; though it’s not their best work, it’s solid. That’s partially a testament to Robertson, who steps up to the plate and only strikes out a couple of times (mainly with the Foo Fighters-lite “I Have Learned” and the country-infused “The Love We’re In,” both of which are more apparent as filler without Page’s songs to provide counterbalance). The man writes fantastic, catchy hooks, most notable on the two strongest tracks on the album, “Summertime” (a hit for the band in some alternate universe) and “Four Seconds,” an eclectic number that highlights his freestyling strengths without sounding like a “One Week” ripoff.

It’s also a testament to the musical bond between the four men, who sound as tight and inventive as ever, and the talents of unofficial Barenaked Lady Michael Philip Wojewoda, who’s produced the band on and off since their Gordon days. And I’ll be damned if half the songs — even the filler tracks — didn’t wind up sticking in my head for days after my initial listen. They’re all eminently singable, which has always been one of the band’s strengths; it’s a relief to know that this quality didn’t leave with Page.

At the end of the day, All in Good Time isn’t likely to earn the band any new fans. And longtime listeners are going to have some difficulty with it too: Barenaked Ladies was born from the unique, exquisite friendship between Steven Page and Ed Robertson, which manifested itself musically in everything from 1991’s “Be My Yoko Ono” to 2008’s “Crazy ABCs,” and that relationship is sorely missed here. However, this is a fine album, and shows that this band still has plenty of life left in them. Are they four-fourths? Not yet. But they’re well on their way.

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Jason Hare
Jason Hare used to love Christmas. He feels differently now.