Who are the Barenaked Ladies?By ALAN SCULLEY, The Columbian, November 21st, 2003.
Ed Robertson, guitarist and singer with the Barenaked Ladies, knows that his band has been confusing to some people.
Hearing songs that are alternately humorous and ironic and serious and introspective, some listeners have had trouble deciding just how seriously to take the hit-making Canadian band.
But the new Barenaked Ladies CD, "Everything to Everyone," contains a song that Robertson feels offers some insights.
It's Testing 1,2,3, and Robertson said the composition contains both somber and fun elements.
"It's kind of the essence of the band," he said. "There is a depth there, but it's also about entertainment, and it's fun and it's meant to be enjoyed and it's meant to be pondered."
The crux of Testing 1,2,3 evolves around some of the most serious issues any songwriter can consider—is the music connecting with listeners? And does anyone care what the songs have to say?
The theme seemed even more timely, Robertson said, because songwriting for "Everything to Everyone" happened early this year as the United States' push to go to war with Iraq was causing many musicians to ponder taking part in the debate surrounding the issue.
"It was a strange time to write a record. It was bizarre," Robertson said. "We'd get together in our basement and (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell would be in the background on TV presenting the smoking gun to the (United Nations)... But it was just a strange time, and there were all these polls on TV. 'Do you care what celebrities think?'
"Celebrities were vilified for speaking out against the war," he said. "It was just weird. So here we are in our basement in Toronto going, 'OK, do people care what we have to say about anything?' So we just decided, 'Well let's just write what we're thinking about and see what comes out.' "
As it turned out, the Barenaked Ladies didn't write any songs that dealt with Iraq. But given the way the band has been dismissed as lightweight or even an outright novelty act, the Barenaked Ladies didn't need a global issue to prompt the questions raised by Testing 1,2,3. The group's apparently inconsistent image was enough.
"It's something that we have struggled with since the very beginning. And I understand it," Robertson said. "Our singles have been songs like One Week and (If I Had A) Million Dollars, and people see us goofing around, and we're often very ironic and our presentation of ourselves is often very over the top. We've also had (more serious and thoughtful) singles like Thanks That Was Fun and Pinch Me and What A Good Boy...
"But that whole time, we knew that we were selling out arenas and selling millions of records," Robertson said. "So we knew there were people out there who did get it and did care and were listening."
The "Everything to Everyone" CD might do as much as any Barenaked Ladies CD to draw attention to the group's more serious side. In addition to Testing 1,2,3, the CD includes a song, War on Drugs, a song that deals with despair, desperation and death with compassion and sadness. Aluminum has plenty of bite in likening shallowness and deceit to the difference between silver and aluminum. The sentiment gets summed up with the line: "You can shine all you want / But you're just aluminum." Even a tune like Celebrity, with its cheeky rhymes in the opening verses, gives way to far more serious content.
Musically, the CD is a bit lower key than some of the band's other CDs. There are a few songs (such as Maybe Katie, Shopping and Upside Down) that fit the pop sound of past hits like One Week, It's All Been Done and Too Little Too Late.
But "Everything to Everyone" is more defined by songs like Celebrity and Next Time (both graceful mid-tempo pop songs); the gentle acoustic tune For You; and the downbeat ballad War on Drugs. The music is still plenty appealing, but certainly less buoyant than Barenaked Ladies fans may expect.
Oddly enough, the more tempered feel of the "Everything to Everyone" (not to mention the considerable variety in the music) might also make it more apparent that the new CD—not to mention recent hit albums like "Maroon" (2000) and "Stunt" (1998)—display solid songcraft, a true gift for melody and notable instrumental skills from the band members.
And if anything, "Everything to Everyone" may be the best barometer yet of the talents of all five members of the band, which formed in 1988 and debuted in the United States in 1992 with the CD "Gordon."
That's because up to now, virtually all of the band's material had been co-written by Robertson and singer/guitarist Steven Page. For "Everything to Everyone," though, the other group members—bassist Jim Creeggan, keyboardist Kevin Hearn and drummer Tyler Stewart—were brought fully into the creative process.
"It was an amazing process," Robertson said. "It was great to have the input of other writers. It was nice to throw some new variables into that process, and we ended up, I think, with really strong, really interesting songs."
Robertson said the other band members hadn't explicitly asked for a bigger role in the creative process, but he knew it was time to open up the channels for collaboration.
"I think it was just sensing the creative desires of Jim and Kev, who never said in as many words we really want to write," Robertson said. "But... I always find myself listening to their records and going 'Gee, I really like that song' or 'I just wish they'd done that with it or gone here with the bridge or something. And so it was just a case of wanting the creative health of the band to be a good one... It just seemed like a natural part of the evolution of the relationship."