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Barenaked Truth

By JOHN KENDLE, Winnipeg Sun, February 23rd, 2001.

Pop's lovable Ladies show their serious side on their Maroon CD.

For such an upbeat-sounding album, the Barenaked Ladies' newest release, Maroon, is certainly a lyrical downer.

That shouldn't be too surprising, given that the Toronto quintet has always indulged a sensitive, plaintive streak — occasionally even an out-and-out dark side.

But to the casual observer, the Ladies are a group of lovable smartasses. They love to ham it up for the media, mug shamelessly in their videos and readily turn their shows into improv comedy routines.

However, as far back as the band's 1992 debut album Gordon, sadness has been part of Ladies' music. The emotional heart of that record was the song Brian Wilson — named for the psychologically troubled former Beach Boy — which was really a rumination on being lost and alienated.

The Old Apartment, from Born on a Pirate Ship, is a sometimes bitter — and certainly frustrated — examination of the ruins of a failed relationship.

Even the group's most popular tune — One Week, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40 in 1998 — takes its cue from a spat between lovers. The protagonist spends the song trying to explain what kind of guy he is and acknowledges at the end that: "It'll still be two days till we say we're sorry."

So, yeah, the Ladies are no strangers to melancholy themes.

What's different about Maroon, though, is that the album's 13 songs aren't really leavened by a sense of lyrical lightheartedness.

First single Pinch Me is about social disaffection, Sell Sell Sell is an indictment of the Hollywood dreamlife the band is becoming familiar with. The Humour of the Situation is a bleak look at adultery and betrayal, while Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel entertains the notion of sudden death.

Singer/guitarist and songwriter Steven Page acknowledges that the band has always had a darker, more sensitive side but says, too, that its tone has changed a bit on the new album.

"Melancholy is a theme that has always run through our records," Page says. "Maybe now we don't have the same balance of light and darkness as in the past, but it doesn't seem to faze the fans or our audiences."

If anything, Page says the band has simply become more direct in its approach to life's tougher questions.

"There's more compassion and less cleverness now, I think," Page says. "We find less of a need to make ourselves seem like clever, smarty-pants guys."

One profound influence on the group's lyrical output was the serious illness of keyboardist Kevin Hearn, who learned he had cancer just after the release of Stunt, then suffered through chemotherapy, stem cell transplants and a relapse while the group watched One Week climb the charts.

"I'd say that it certainly changed the way we wrote songs and I think, too, that it either explicitly or implicitly affected our sense of mortality, too," Page explains.

What balances the darkness of Maroon's lyrics is the brightness of the music on the album. The arrangements shimmer, the harmonies and melodies are bright and swirling.

Page says that fans shouldn't be worried about the band being black-clad gloom merchants, either.

"Longtime fans are always the first to get their backs up about a new record. That whole 'what were they thinking' stuff and they need to be won over by the new material, so we try and be fairly crafty about our sets," he says. "The show is there as an entertainment, after all. The aim is to make people feel good and hold their attention for a while," he says. "So, yeah, they'll hear all the old stuff, too."

Ladies For The Ages