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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  • brokeastunes

    For those who are interested, Kevin Hearn has carved out quite a solid body of work with his side project Thinkbuckle. Their latest CD even features a guest appearance by some guy called Lou Reed…

  • http://twitter.com/michaelparr Michael Parr

    I'm looking forward to listening to the new record. Great review, Jason.

  • Matt

    Wow, my anticipation to hear this record just shot up a few notches after reading this – as a longtime BNL fan, I've had a lot of hesitation about this album, and while you've validated some of the things I was concerned about, I'll look forward to hearing this.

  • brokeastunes

    Sorry-I misspelled…it's Thinbuckle.

  • http://mostlymodernmedia.wordpress.com Beau

    I saw Barenaked Ladies in Whistler and was impressed at how they sounded live. Between that and the reviews I've seen for this, I'm ready to un-give up on them. I thought they had completed the slide into irrelevance, but maybe the split is just what they needed.

    I hate to see the bitterness, though. You'd like to think Page could just move on to a Broadway career for which his voice and comic ability are perfectly suited, and that he and Robertson could both be justly proud of what they've accomplished. Perhaps more of a “Bill Berry leaves R.E.M.” rather than a “Beatles break up, sue each other” sort of dynamic.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    It will be interesting to see how the world receives Barenaked Mach 3. Page always projected the fun, friendly persona while Robertson played with the hipster aspects. They worked together well, but after Page's fall from grace, it was just a matter of time. Robertson, on the other hand, has put out a sometimes caustic break-up album under the BNL banner, and is the public ready for the band without their goofier side?

  • Thierry

    The thing though is that Page didn't really bring the goofier side – though he may have looked like the goofy one – he brought the melancholy and more often than not darker sides: he's the one who wrote “Brian Wilson”, “The Flag”, “Jane”, “Break Your Heart”, “Alcohol”, “Call and Answer”, etc., he was the Smiths fan who wrote with Stephen Duffy, whereas songs like “One Week” and “Pinch Me” were Robertson's. Overall, while the album may not be as fun as previous ones, I think BNL fans are far more likely to see that goofier side still present at their shows than if they go see Page.

  • http://www.jasonhare.com jasonhare

    Page was always capable of being goofy whether or not he wrote the songs — in fact, he always seemed more than willing to assume that role — but perhaps he's ready to shed that persona. A very serious drug arrest during the band's promotion of their kids' album couldn't have helped.

    I think you're right about live shows. Steve will shy away from anything that directly reminds anyone of BNL, and the band will continue with the ad-libs and the freestyle raps, as Tyler, Jim and Kevin were always a part of those moments. What I'll miss more than anything is how much Steve and Ed seemed to enjoy when the other one was making something up on the spot.

  • Thierry

    How annoyed do you think Page was that throughout the drug ordeal (and then the breakup), he kept being referred to as the “One Week” writer? If you're trying to shed the goofy image, having everyone identify you with the one novelty hit you didn't have any hand in writing doesn't help.

    Speaking of Page, have you heard this?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Singer_Must_Die
    They've played a few songs from it on Canada's CBC Radio, and I'm not sure it really works all that well, but at the very least it's an interesting idea.

  • http://www.jasonhare.com jasonhare

    I haven't heard A Singer Must Die yet. I heard the concert they did a year or so ago. Honestly, both that and The Vanity Project did nothing for me.

  • SB

    Its annoying that you have to sign up for something just to hear a snippet of a song. Am I the only one who feels constantly barraged by websites you visit once wanting all this personal info. Sure you can put in fake stuff and give them an email you never check but that takes forever too. (and I always forget my password to that email.)

  • http://www.jasonhare.com jasonhare

    I'm assuming you're talking about the links that take you directly to Lala's site, since the embedded songs should play all the way through. They probably don't want you to know this, but if you cancel out of the pop-up asking you to enter an e-mail address, you can listen to the whole song without entering any information.

    Lala allows people to listen to almost any song once from start to finish; after that, I believe you only are given 30-second snippets. As Jeff mentioned a few weeks ago, we're finding Lala to be a site worth signing up for — it allows listeners to make intelligent decisions before they buy music.

  • Soupin

    Page brought this on himself. As much as I love him and appreciate his amazing talent, it looks like this whole situation was brought on by him and him alone (the drugs, the girlfriend, or whatever you want to blame it on). His attitude has kinda changed these past few years and I have a feeling he was grating on the band’s nerves as much as the band was grating on his nerves (Tyler called it a constant “pissing match”). I can see why Ed and others are still upset with the guy.
    That said, I look forward to what he can offer in his solo career. BUT I was still be keeping closer tabs on the now four-some BNL. Even though this album is kinda melancholy, I imagine that as this situation moves further into the past we will start to hear more of their goofy stuff – it was Ed after all that is responsible for the more comical elements of the group (I’ve heard fans call him the “clown” of the band).