SameDiff BNL

The Dukes Of Dorkdom

By KEVIN JOHN, SonicNet, September 15th, 2000.

A number of years ago, well before Canada's Barenaked Ladies ever crossed American shores, I received an unintended glimpse into the mind of a dork. I was sleeping over at a friend's house, and she and her boyfriend (the dork in question) decided to have sex and woke me up in the grueling process. I felt too awkward telling them to pipe down, so I was stuck having to listen, and, at one particularly heated moment, the guy actually asked, in a Dr. Ruth voice, "Are you afraid of multiple orgasms?" Thankfully, rolling your eyes doesn't make a sound.

Do you know someone like this? A geek who's constantly doing voices or acting out miniskits to mitigate his discomfort with real human emotion (or do I just mean discomfort with the female of the species)? Well, the Barenaked Ladies seem to be made up entirely of such men. Think of their breakthrough hit, 1998's "One Week." Guitarist/vocalist Ed Robertson's pop-culture-drunk faux-rap is really just an extended riff on that Dr. Ruth impersonation, meant to undercut a song that all too candidly examines the kind of guy who wears his mind on his sleeve because he's petrified of opening his heart. Perhaps no song in popular music has explored the interior lives of nerds with more honesty.

That's why Barenaked Ladies' joke-band pigeonhole is misleading. They know they're losers, crybabies and all-around screw-ups, but they don't know how to change, and that lends their albums a certain existential despair. Some of the songs on their new one, Maroon, get downright nihilistic. "Pinch Me," the first single, is laid-back and folksy on the surface, blending unobtrusively with bland bar bandisms - yet its lyrics are downright bleak. "If I pack the car and leave this town/ Who'll notice that I'm not around?" sings lead vocalist Steven Page, and he's right to wonder. All he does in this song is, well, nothing; he drives to a restaurant, then runs through a sprinkler. His life is so devoid of any kind of meaningful drive that he can barely muster the strength to protest it: "You try to scream, but it only comes out as a yawn."

Much of Maroon proceeds similarly with a borderline adult-contemporary sound that's catchy and exuberant enough to gloss over the intermittently dark verse. Don Was' aggressively normal production aids in this effect, extracting Bruce Hornsby arpeggios from keyboardist Kevin Hearn, America harmonies from Page and crew and a Wallflowers-ish pulse throughout. Yet the resulting incongruity couldn't really be called tense, because no matter how seriously the Ladies examine their lots in life, they refuse to let die the arch goofing off, interjecting idiotic quips such as "I just made you say 'Underwear' " on the otherwise somber "Pinch Me".

And Page would rather die himself, as he does on "Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel", than risk going out without one final chance to crack wise: "You're the last thing on my mind, you're the last thing on my ..."

Summing it all up is "The Humour of the Situation". Encouraged by drummer Tyler Stewart's friendly beat, Page smugly fires off his motto "Come on now, enjoy the humour of the situation" to a girlfriend he treats like dirt. While I admire how he turns his motto back on himself when said girlfriend finally dumps him, it's clear that the Barenaked Ladies' bare-naked self-analysis is ultimately of limited use - even for dorks.

Rating: 3½ stars (of 5).