SameDiff BNL

We don't always need genius from our twerps

By MICHAEL SCHMELLING, VillageVoice, October 14th, 1998.

Rock 'n' roll show, for us, is a celebratory experience," said the unbearably revivalistic drummer-singer of the opening band Cowboy Mouth last Wednesday. In other words, cheer me and you'll have a good time. Dude, how about coming up with something to celebrate?

Barenaked Ladies don't ask for favors. Promoting their hit album Stunt (Reprise), they tossed off three strummy, funny pop-rocks in under 10 minutes, feeding off the relaxed punch of a good drummer, a bassist getting something organic out of his stand-up, jamming keyboards, and a hyper lead singer/ guitarist who briefly switched to flute when the lead guitarist took the mike. This main duo bounced from electric to acoustic, threw in a touch of human beatbox, and, when the dust cleared, started to freestyle. We were at Madison Square Garden, where Janet Jackson was due a few days later. So they riffed off Q-Tip's "Joni Mitchell never lies" rap from Janet's "Got 'Til It's Gone," which led somehow to the New York Rangers, and Helmut Lang, and "rep resent, represent." Let's get this party started quickly.

Steven Page, the singer-guitarist, and Ed Robertson, the guitarist-singer, met a decade ago working at sum mer camp; in 1992, the Toronto-based Barenaked Ladies released Gordon, which eventually sold a million Canadian copies — up north it's called going diamond (beyond platinum). In the lower 48, we had plenty other punk-asses to choose from: They Might Be Giants, Too Much Joy, the Dead Milkmen, Mojo Nixon. Green Day soon enough. So we missed one of those gift-of-nature debuts, where the hits shoot out like pop was a game of miniature golf. In particular "Brian Wilson," about staring at the ceiling listening over and over to Smiley Smile ("and I'm wondering if this is some kind of creative drought"), and "If I Had $1000000" ("I'd buy you a fur coat [but not a real fur coat that's cruel]").

Maybe their debut earned BNL that million bucks, but sophomore slump hit 'em like everybody else. Even so, Maybe You Should Drive added two more power-boppers about weirdly quirky relationships (their favorite subject when they're not clinging to Gen-X flotsam) to the permanent set-list: "Jane" and "Life, in a Nutshell." Album three beefed up further: "Break Your Heart," a blowsy ballad that climaxes the way "Me and Mrs. Jones" starts, and "The Old Apartment," where Page punches holes in the wall and confesses stalker B&E. The latter crossed the border onto U.S. radio.

Then they broke, selling a half-million here of Rock Spectacle, a live album that featured all eight of the quality songs they'd painstakingly assembled out of their effortless cute ness. "Brian Wilson" finally went off, like an old hand grenade. The album, by far their most listenable, ended with one of those freestyle raps Page and Robertson love to do live. So for the first single off Stunt, "One Week," Robertson raps away: "Hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes/Big like LeAnn Rimes." The Beastie Boys needn't worry, let alone Jay Z, but as a studio confection it's a piece of work, merging old-style pop hooks with a Sunday puzzle of a toast. It's now the number one single in the country.

There are limits to this celebratory experience, of course. Page has a thoroughly pleasurable natural vibrato, like Paul Heaton from the Beautiful South (who BNL can resemble musically, too), but he never twists the knife as deep. Though Stunt adds a couple more sock-hoppers and one cigarette-lighter ballad to the stage show, there's only one deeper gem, the teen "In the Car," where "it was mostly mutual masturbation... though we spoke of penetration."

But we don't always want intensity coming out of our TV and we don't always need genius from our twerps. Live, the Barenaked Ladies come off like that improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? At one point, Robertson announced it was time for the show's "Meet the Security Guard segment." The crowd-blocker up front introduced himself as Johnny D, so they made up new rhymes for him, set to "Jack and Diane," which Johnny D strummed while Robertson switched the chords. "If I Had $1000000" has become their Rocky Horror moment — the audience threw Kraft macaroni and cheese around on cue. Throughout, little tricks abounded, less amusements than bemusements, like the ever varying opening credits of The Simpsons.

One BNL staple has always been medley sequences of other people's hits: at the Video Music Awards this year, they covered all the Best Song nominees, dance moves included. These nice-even-for-Canadians, pals of such other national luminaries as Jason Priestly and Dave Foley, have al ways lived with their nose to the cultural glass, busking to be heard. Now they leave that to the Tragically Hip. And here's the best part. "One Week" only came off so-so live; the balance between freestyle and pop song was off. So during "If I Had $1000000" BNL did some of the rap again. This time it was fabulous. Because what's more intoxicating than being so big you can quote yourself?