One should know better than to compare the Barenaked Ladies to Radiohead. I mean, hello? Two totally different bands. But the comparison seemed apt last year when the witty Canadian group independently released the album Barenaked Ladies Are Me, the first half of a set of songs that were all written and recorded during the same sessions, with the second half set to release early the following year. How can such a scenario not remind a critic of Radiohead throwing their fans for a loop with Kid A and Amnesiac? But when I made that comparison, I held out hope that the second album, Barenaked Ladies Are Men, wouldn't just feel like a collection of leftovers that weren't good enough for the first album. Are Me turned out to be so enjoyable to my ears that I figured even a minor drop in quality from that album would still result in a good selection for Are Men. But as it turns out, the Amnesiac comparison here is rather apt.
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Now I'll make it crystal clear that the BNL's forte is the meeting place between pop, rock, and acoustic/folk type music, not avant-garde electronic noise of any sort, so it's not like there are odd sonic experiments taking the place of actual songs here. We can drop the Radiohead comparison (the stylistic dissimilarity being part of the reason I shouldn't have made it to begin with) after making the observation of two albums from the same sessions released back-to-back. What makes Are Men inconsistent and inferior compared to Are Me isn't so much the musical style - it's perhaps more upbeat and jovial than its predecessor - but the quality of the lyrics and the feeling that they had trouble distilling their wealth of song ideas down to the ones that were truly the best. Thirteen songs was a good length for Are Me - one or two tracks were slightly weaker, but it contained no true duds. This time around, though, we've got sixteen tracks. I don't think most artists in the known universe could keep up a winning streak of worthwhile song ideas for that long. Sure enough, there are a few embarrassing duds on this project, and the flow of it is inconsistent, to say the least. I complained about Are Me feeling slightly "out of order" due to its slow start and fast finish, but on this album especially, it feels like little regard was given to whether a song would end up track 1 or track 16. So it feels a bit like you're getting a Barenaked Ladies grab bag.
But when Are Men is strong, it's especially thought-provoking. The band may unleash more of their goofy side on some of these songs, but they also turn in a few more soft, sensitive tracks that rank among their best. There's also one hum-dinger of a political satire buried in there. It takes some patience to find the gems in between all of the zippy guitar riffs, jumpy choruses, and overall peppiness of the album's more upbeat tracks, but trust me, they're there - and some of those gems are the sillier songs. It's when the band tries to be amusingly clever about a subject that isn't particularly funny or interesting that they fail, which can happen on fast and slow songs alike. It feels like there should have been some sort of rhyme or reason applied to which songs were included on which disc (I'm sure there was, but the logic escapes me). The title Barenaked Ladies Are Me seems to imply a willingness to unabashedly assert one's goofy side, and just show the world who you really are without all of the pretense, while Barenaked Ladies Are Men (aside from correcting the age-old confusion over this band's name regarding the gender of its members) has connotations of a more mature approach. I'd almost prefer to switch the two titles, since Are Me shows a lot more maturity over all, and most of Are Men is just the group having fun. But the two attitudes cross-pollinate between both albums, so really, it's up to you as a fan to take the best from both and make your own BLAM compilation that leaves out the more lackluster material.
You worked down at the Dairy Queen
We hit it off from the start
Now there's a blizzard in between
Frost inside a heart...
Surprisingly, the band decided to do something really different this time and lead off with the meek vocals of keyboardist Kevin Hearn. In the past, he's handed over the occasional upbeat song to one of the two usual lead vocalists, but this time, he gets a mid-tempo rocker to himself, which appears to describe a summer romance that he happened upon by chance in his teenage years. The sentiment seems to be that the romance faded as the seasons change, but the memories he was left with are still strong ones, and he'd rather take the optimistic view of a change in life that was "Good for you, good for me". His lyrics might almost be too specific to the point of only fully making sense to the girl he's singing about, but it's not bad for such an unusual album opener.
Something You'll Never Find
You're looking for something
That's not even there
You're knocking down tables
You're kicking in chairs...
Here's where the band's goofy energy - largely curtailed on the previous album - comes out to play. Stephen Page puts on his best ironic smile as the band brings out the big guitar riffs and Tyler Stewart clatters around happily on his drum kit while Kevin unleashes some ridiculously happy synth runs, including a fun little solo in the middle of the song. There are even horns punctuating the chorus at one point - it's a larger-than-life mixture of fun music, slightly marred by the song's one-chord chorus. Stephen seems to be offering a bit of existential advice to a person who's expectations of love are far too high - she seems to expect him to be the magic cure-all for everything, and he's trying to insist he's only human, despite her violent outbursts at not getting all of her dreams instantly fulfilled. I really want to enjoy this song, but I have a bit of trouble with the non-sequitur bridge lyrics which appear to have nothing to do with anything ("Over in Indiana, wearing their red bandanas, Indians eat bananas, thinking they're full of Vitamin C"), and I'm especially irritated with the song's long outro, where the band keeps hitting the same darn chord three times, over and over, as it all fades out. How about just doing a big rock star finish instead of dragging it out like that, guys?
One and Only
I need to think
'Cause now I've got everyone wondering
Pass me a drink
Last, but not least, and my virtue's gone...
It's great to hear Ed Robertson's voice again. His songs tend to be a little more subtle than a lot of the ones led by Stephen Page, and for some reason they resonate with me more (nothing against Page's songwriting, but I can't help which band member I relate to more). He's got a tricky love song in 6/8 time here, which intentionally throws you off at the beginning with only a few acoustic guitar chords to give you a hint at the melody, while Tyler intentionally plays 6/8 in a way that sounds more like 4/4. The song reveals its intricacy as the acoustic guitar picking begins to fill in the melody behind the verse later on. Ed sounds like he's pleading with a girl to give him a chance to play that little game called love, but he's also asking her to take it slow and be careful with him - the phrase "I'm one and only" seems to imply that he only has one heart to break, and she shouldn't treat him like he's indestructible. The other guys provide some great background vocals toward the end, weaving about underneath the song's memorable, shifting melody. It's a weirdly constructed song that has grown on me in a big way.
You see, the happy people's biggest problem
Is they're never fearing the worst
While the rest of us will never sleep until
Your happy bubbles are burst...
Ready for a goofy, ironic rant set to the tune of obnoxiously happy music? The horns are back, and they conspire with a bouncy rhythm and insistent stabs of guitar to create a song that gets stuck in your head even though you want to yell at it to shut the hell up already. Stephen's going on about what it's like to be an angry person who can't stand how happy everyone else around him is - his explanation of his desire to burst their bubbles is rather humorous, because of how obnoxiously catchy and not at all angry-sounding the music is. I'm going to have to take away a few points for making Stephen's vocals during one of the verses so watery and muffled that you can't hear the punchline, but other than that, this song is a total blast that dares to try to cheer you up when you're p!ssed off at the rest of the world, even though its lyrics are declaring exactly the opposite sentiment.
Down to Earth
Some people are just all show
Well, I don't mind that if the show is worth watching
But it's all bark and no tree
What's more ironic than a hippie in Versace?
You've got to love rants about superficial celebrities. It seems like every rock band writes a song about this eventually, and the subject has become a bit of a hypocritical cliche in some cases, but leave it to the Barenaked Ladies to come up with a memorable take on the subject. Against more insistently peppy interplay between the scratchy guitars and the video game-inspired synths, Ed does some great verbal sparring as he describes a movie star who preaches all sorts of peace and love and environmental harmony while living the lifestyle of Paris Hilton and showing about the same amount of true depth. It's basically a tirade about how some famous people will lend their voice to just about any cause that's en vogue while being obviously insincere about it. As Ed wryly observes in the chorus, "You really want to show her how she's just so down to Earth... via satellite." Not all of his verbal jabs are as clever, but the whimsical way in which he tells this girl off while admitting he's at least a little bit attracted to her devious charms makes it one of my favorite songs on the album.
What if you were not thin and tall?
What if you were done with it all?
What if you were not baby-doll beautiful?
I've heard about a billion songs with this title by now, but this is one that definitely lives up to its name. A strikingly sensitive backdrop of loungey piano and light drumming immediately puts this song in league with some of the better mellow songs from Gordon, where a band who seemed to exist mostly for laughs showed us their more delicate side. Ed's tackling the subject of fleeting beauty here, admitting that it's very easy to have his head turned by a beautiful woman, but something in him wants to be assured that there's more to her than her looks. How pretty she is can only last so long if the girls' only an airhead - he wants to know that there's something worthwhile going on in her head if he's going to bother actually getting to know her. He sums up in four words what entire novels have been written about - "Beauty disappears; boredom perseveres". What is truly beautiful about the way that this song is performed is the vocal interplay between Ed and Steve during the chorus - Steve starts each line with the word "Beautiful" while Ed finishes the thought - "(Beautiful) Isn't she? (Beautiful) Paid to be? (Beautiful) When I see (Beautiful) Shame on me." There's another layer of backing vocals coming from either Kevin Hearn or Jim Creegan (they're rather hushed, so I can't pick out whose voice it is) that adds to the delicate complexity during the second chorus, and when all three layers finally appear together at the end of this tragically short song, I find myself wishing they could just go around and around with that chorus a few more times, maybe jam on it a little, before ending the song. Still, despite the short length, it's my favorite on the album, and one of the best songs in the band's repertoire thus far.
Running Out of Ink
I tried to call your name
But something made me stop
I called you once a day
Until you called the cops
And told them it was me...
Here comes another synth-happy rock song - you can almost figure out the pattern of most of the wacky upbeat numbers at this point, and hey, I don't blame 'em for continuing to put together quick-witted songs with lyrics that fly by, because it helps to keep the attention of people like me who first took notice of the band due to tongue twisters like "One Week" and "Falling for the First Time". Tyler's drum rolls are lots of fun in this song's chorus, and Steve manages to stuff in more amusing verses than you can shake a stick at. This one continues the time-honored tradition of poking fun at lovers in rather dysfunctional relationships - in this case, a songwriter's girlfriend seems to be rather ticked off at him for writing a song about their relationship that turned into a massive hit, so I'm guessing there's a bit of meta reference here. For a song that catapults forward in helter-skelter fashion, it's kind of funny when they get to the bridge and it turns into a slow, dramatic, almost operatic breakdown, before returning to the final verses and chorus at breakneck speed. So far on this record, the band's been firing on all cylinders for most every song.
Half a Heart
In the space between sleep and sleeplessness
We redress all our wounds
If we replace all this hopeless hopelessness
Then we could rest...
Here's the album's first dud. I hate to say that, because it's a mellow, acoustic song sung by Ed and I tend to like the unexpected corners that his lyrics turn. But here, he mostly wastes a good acoustic chord progression on a lot of lyrical snippets that feel like they've been pasted together in the hopes of saying something coherent. It doesn't work, and his delivery seems rather lackadaisical during the verses. The chorus hints at the witty misuse of a cliche that doesn't really make sense when it's examined more closely - we talk about things that even a person with "half a heart" would do as a way of saying that even a rather cruel and detached person would have some basic level of decency. And Ed's using the metaphor that way, but also flipping it around and saying that some with half a heart might just be unfeeling enough to let him suffer the natural consequences of his follies - and maybe that's exactly the kind of help he needs, rather than someone compassionate bailing him out time after time. I can read that into the song's wordplay, so he hasn't totally failed here - it's just that the disconnected verses don't lead into the witty chorus in a way that makes the song feel satisfying as a whole.
And we can argue 'till our throats are sore
About how far you'd take a metaphor.
You always deign to see the glass half filled
And now it seems to me the half glass spilled...
I find it interesting that track 9 on the previous album was "Maybe You're Right", and now this album's ninth track is called "Maybe Not". While not musically related to my favorite song from that album in any way, this one seems to continue that song's fight in more of an up-tempo and belligerent manner - the rhythm of it honestly feels a bit disconnected to me due to all of the starts and stops, as if they're trying to be overly quirky with it. They try to pep it up with some handclaps during the chorus, but this one fails to strike me as catchy because it takes too many detours. The song's rather indecisive, almost daring the girl to just take half of their stuff and get the hell out of there, but then adding that "but maybe not" as a way of saying he's not really sure he can just write her off that easily.
I Can, I Will, I Do
You write; I read your letters every night
All right, I skim them just to be polite
I fight embarrassment and shame
The mention of your name makes me turn white
But guilt still makes me refrain...
Now look, I'm all for paying homage to a fellow Canadian artist. I happen to enjoy some of Ron Sexsmith's music, as much as his rather simple style and his brand of melancholy crooning had to grow on me. But I really don't want to hear another singer doing a bad impression of the guy. That seems to be what Stephen's doing here, intentionally making his voice all weak and raspy in some sort of misguided attempt to be a romantic crooner. It doesn't work at all and it's rather annoying. The song shuffles along on a mellow beat that reminds me a bit of Sexsmith's "Hard Bargain", and I'll give Page some credit for infusing what seems like a straightforward song of dedication with a tiny bit of sarcasm - he seems to take a bit of pride in telling a girl who doesn't believe he can love her that he's going to prove her wrong and totally kill her with kindness. With a stronger vocal performance, this one could have been really memorable, but it mostly just sounds like Steve needs a cough drop.
Fun and Games
We kept it all long-range, and made a regime change
You'd have thought it would have been a gas
But when it got ugly, we sat around smugly
Because you bought our little joke en masse...
Now here's a bit of unadulterated brilliance. I've got to admit that it takes a lot of audacity for a Canadian band to conjure up their own musical attack on the American government, but thankfully, Ed's lyrics and wry delivery are so on point here that the potential faux pas is redirected into a truly hilarious song that could be read in one of two ways. It doesn't take long to figure out, against the jolly piano and the vaguely military-inspired drum cadence, that Ed is speaking from the point of view of President George W. Bush, describing how well his plan to come up with an excuse to attack Iraq and to obliterate normal life in America as we know it has gone so far, daring to ask why people are so up in arms about what he's done, as if he didn't get the joke. The whole thing is played off as if Bush is just having a laugh - and if you're anti-Bush, you could possibly think he's that crazy, but this song also works well, I think, if you're pro-Bush and want to make fun of how paranoid some of the conspiracy theorists are. It's a witty satire that works either way - it kind of steps on the toes of both sides a little, and asks if we're really to accuse the American government of being that idiotic. The most brilliant moments comes during the bridge, when the song gradually speeds up and morphs into some sort of a weird Dixieland jazz band gone horribly awry, while describing a bleak but cartoonish future for America: "A new salute is genuflected, the Gallup Poll will be respected, a gallows pole will be erected, and all this will go undetected!" It's sheer genius. Some people will be offended, I guess, but they're just party poopers.
The New Sad
Everybody's youth is only what they make it
Longer in the tooth, so why do people fake it?
We'll never get it back again...
This acoustic song sung by Steve is a good example of trying to be subtly funny by employing an oxymoron, and having it not work at all. "Happy is the new sad" is his premise here, and he's apparently insisting that it's better to just admit we're all getting older and be bummed out about it, and not bother distracting ourselves with happy thoughts. I'm all for being realistic, but this song is just depressing. The dumb sound effects during the breaks between verses (trying to imitate the bluebird mentioned in the lyrics and all that) don't help much - I'm not sure if they're trying to be funny here, but either they are and it's just not translating, or they're serious and they need to take a little Prozac. Man, what a bummer this song is.
Just show me the venue when I'm on the menu
The life of the party, I'm like Billy Barty
But wait, there's more ill-conceived crap where that came from! This one's got to be the absolute dumbest song that the Barenaked Ladies have ever written, which is saying a lot - I've griped about past songs like "She's on Time" that I felt were in poor taste or "Some Fantastic" that I thought were just plain cheesy, but at least those were somewhat clever. This one tries to be clever as Ed plays the role of an egotistical celebrity trying to sell himself to performance venues as if he were a food item on the menu, promising that he'll knock everyone's socks off. This could be witty and humorous in the hands of... well, in the hands of the Barenaked Ladies, on a good or even average day. But this must have been a particularly bad day for Ed - he strings together some observations about foreign culture in about the most idiotic way possible ("I hung with the stars there, you know they drive cars there on the other side"), and then decides to get really lazy on the chorus, declaring that they'll study his work in theology (which isn't funny, it's just egotistical, even if he's just being sarcastic), which later gives the guys in the band the excuse to sing every field of study ending in "-ology" that they can think of. It's the ultimate terrible filler song - the melody's a bit catchy if you're not paying attention to the lyrics, but it's pretty much impossible for even the most casual listener to notice the lazy lyrics on this one. It's the kind of song that makes you wish you had a trap door in your floor with a handy button that you could press to immediately dump the band and not have to hear any more of this dreck - "BZZZZT! Not funny! Next, please!"
Sweet potato pie
Is what your mom would always make
Your father smoked a pipe
My hand crushed in his handshake...
Time for a little more weirdness from Kevin Hearn. He doesn't get himself off to the best start with the awkward rhyme of "Alaska" and "arts and craft shop", but that seems mostly forgivable when the first verse reveals this to be a bit of a traveler's song, about missing a person he hasn't seen in years and not being able to find her amidst all of his travels. I really like the chorus, with its strangely tilting melody as the guys sing about spinning the globe and putting their finger on a random spot and wondering if that's where the girl is. "Are you in... Berlin?" It could be clever if more place names that rhymed with "in" were rattled off later in the song, They Might Be Giants style, but unfortunately, the only other one Kevin can come up with is "Afghanistan", which is two weak geographical rhymes in one song. That, and the second verse just gets really weird, talking about the girl's dad being s super-secret spy or something that totally kills the relatability of the song, so... "BZZZZT! Not funny! Next, please!"
What a Letdown
Even if I let this settle it'll lead to a little fight
Even when I get too meddlin', I need to remain polite...
I'll refrain from commenting on how this song's title is appropriately descriptive of the album at this point. Too easy of a cheap-shot. But dang, this thing is really getting long in the tooth at this point. More big guitar riffs and bouncy drums come out for a slightly catchier song about disappointment - it beats "The New Sad" in the "amusing song about something depressing" department, but it still isn't all that great. I think the best part is the clever rhyming in Ed's first verse - "Even if I jiggle it a little, it'll open up on its own". But then he just repeats that verse again later - it's like the band had a fun song in the making and they kind of gave up on it. I'm not a fan of the wacky bridge vocals - I normally like it when this band tries to be wacky, but there's too much goofiness competing for my attention on this album, and they've done this style better in songs like "Angry People".
Why Say Anything Nice?
Why'd you put your backpack on if you won't just take a hike?
Frankly, I'd be out the door if you hadn't sold my bike...
There's not much logic to ending the album on an upbeat and angry note like this one (not that it was all that logical to end the previous album with "Wind It Up", but hey, I love that song). Thankfully, at least it's more amusing than some of the previous tracks' feeble attempts at humor. This one is Steve's play on the phrase "If you can't say anything nice, don't say nothing at all" - he turns it around and accuses a person of not saying or doing anything and just allowing a conflict fester, because he or she is too polite to brave the messy conflict. "Why'd you take your glasses off if you don't intend to fight?", he prods, seemingly looking for any change in the person's behavior just so he can finally let them have the truth. There's a slight touch of humor to it, but it's also a keen psychological observation about a person who seems to be very conflict-averse and passive-aggressive. The rhymes are well-placed, the horns punctuate the song in just the right way, and quite frankly, this song doesn't deserve to be buried at the bitter end of this somewhat tedious album. If you've ever had a knock-down, drag-out verbal fight with a lover or relative that you lived with, and then watched them walk around the house in the days and weeks that followed trying to act like nothing ever happened, then this song is for you.
This album could be much worse, I suppose. It's not as embarrassingly inconsistent as Born on a Pirate Ship or (dare I say it?) Stunt. But it can be painful to listen to Barenaked Ladies Are Me - which I feel is easily on the level with Gordon or Maroon - and realize that those songs came from the same sessions as this one. If anything, it proves that going indie hasn't radically changed the strength of the band's outputs. They can write some brilliant material that is perhaps not quite right for radio, and they can still write unabashed pop/rock songs that are totally radio-friendly but also total duds. And they can do a lot in between. The net balance between the two albums is still quite positive - combined, I'd give them a B grade. Cut out the three or four worst songs here, and it might make a worthy companion to Are Me. But since Are Men is so scattershot, you probably won't want to invest in this one until you've absorbed its predecessor. And who knows, you might find some humor or some hidden flash of brilliance where I didn't on this album. The Barenaked Ladies are a rather polarizing group at times, so I guess anything could happen. But given my personal tastes, I can only give this one a weak recommendation.
Something You'll Never Find $1
One and Only $1.50
Angry People $1.50
Down to Earth $1.50
Running Out of Ink $1
Half a Heart $0
Maybe Not $.50
I Can, I Will, I Do $.50
Fun and Games $2
The New Sad $0
Another Spin $.50
What a Letdown $.50
Why Say Anything Nice? $1.50
Stephen Page: Lead vocals, guitars
Ed Robertson: Lead vocals, guitars
Kevin Hearn: Piano, keyboards, synths, guitar, mandolin, accordion, vocals
Jim Creegan: Bass guitar, double bass, vocals
Tyler Stewart: Drums, percussion, vocals
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