Among the truths we hold to be self-evident are these: Canadian bands can play their asses off, and they can also bring the funny. No outfit hailing from north of the border embodies these paired virtues more engagingly than the Barenaked Ladies, whose fusion of hooks and yuks has resulted in more than 14 million albums sold, as well as putting myriad fannies in the seats of concert halls and amphitheaters around the world.
On the occasion of the band’s 25th anniversary, BNL—Ed Robertson (guitar/vocals), Jim Creeggan (bass/vocals), Kevin Hearn (keyboard/guitar/vocals) and Tyler Stewart (drums/vocals)—are celebrating with new album GRINNING STREAK. The album, the band's twelfth, is their first in partnership with Vanguard Records after self-releasing their last four efforts.
According to the affable and articulate Robertson, the decision was a no-brainer. “We’ve done the major label thing, we’ve done the other extreme, and it was gratifying that Vanguard was interested in working with the band,” he says. “We like to go with enthusiasm—it’s that simple. We know what we’re capable of, but to have someone working for you and excited about it is really cool.”
The album picks up steam via its hyper-hooky 1st single “Boomerang,” produced by Gavin Brown (The Tragically Hip, Metric), who handled 11 of GRINNING STREAK’s 15 tracks. Another session with Toronto's Howie Beck (Feist, Walk of The Earth) yielded four album tracks: the buoyant “Who Knew,” the wistful “Smile,” the swirling “Off His Head” and the chugging “Best Damn Friend.” Rounding out the sessions is a Mark Endert (Maroon 5, Train) super-pop re-mix of "Boomerang."
Returning to Toronto in mid-March, the band banged out remainder of the songs with Brown. These remarkably productive final sessions yielded several stone-cold killers, paced by the quintessentially catchy “Odds Are,” which marries a wicked-clever mathematical premise to a chorus hook that elevates with such thrust that it practically leaves a vapor trail. BNL go EDM, so to speak, on “Limits,” as Robertson climbs atop an earth-shaking electro-groove to deliver a cautionary tale about the risks inherent in impulsively exceeding the metaphorical speed limit, while “Did I Say That Out Loud?” is a blast of romantic ardor fueled by “alcohol or alchemy” that clocks in at a pulse-racing 2:27. All three are worthy additions to a canon already bursting at the seams with brainy, big-hearted classics.
Indeed, the whole of GRINNING STREAK unfolds with the signature blend of immediacy, tunefulness and witty sophistication that made such BNL hits as “Pinch Me, “Brian Wilson,” “If I Had $1,000,000” and the chart-topping “One Week” modern-day classics.
“Pop is a form that I love—it can be high-energy and intricate,” says Robertson of the genre the band has championed throughout the last quarter century. “When I think of pop music, I think of the Cars and Squeeze—interesting melodic rock is what I gravitate to and what I’m always striving for. I want guitar-heavy pop/rock that’s intelligent, evocative and thought-provoking. I want it to be singable and relatable, and I want there to be other layers in there for the people who want to go deeper—because not everybody does. I’ve heard so many times, ‘I love you guys ’cause your songs are just fun and easygoing.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m glad you enjoy them, but there’s a dark underbelly that you haven’t mined.’”
Indeed, there’s much more to the Barenaked Ladies than initially meets the ear. Suck on the candy-coated surfaces of Robertson’s songs long enough and you never know what you’ll encounter in their “emotional centers,” as Robertson puts it.
He wrestled with the songs for the new album over an extended period as he plumbed the depths of his psyche in search of just those emotional centers. As the ideas steeped in his mind, Robertson experienced periods of stress, though not to the degree he’d endured while writing the material for the band’s previous studio album, 2010’s All in Good Time. That one was their first project following the departure of Steven Page, who’d founded the band with Robertson in 1988, reconfiguring the BNL as a four-piece.
“This is the second record since all of that turmoil,” Robertson notes, “but it’s still a part of what we’re going through and informs who we are. On the last record, there were some songs that were directly about the band split, but this record is much more about the emotional rebuilding after that process. Looking back on the maelstrom of all that upheaval, I wanted to convey a sense of hope, reconciliation and healing with these songs. ‘Off His Head,’ for example, is about pushing through difficulty. There’s a double chorus at the end that I flipped, because I didn’t want it to end with, ‘Wishing you were dead.’ That’s part of being exasperated and at your wit’s end. But what I like about this song is that it says you just do it. You think it’s hopeless, but there’s a reason you’re pushing through it. The song says you can let all these things ruin you, or you can take it on the chin and stand up again.”
“Boomerang” metaphorically examines the aftermath of a breakup, but on a deeper level it recounts an impassioned interior dialogue.“It’s a really personal song that says, ‘You can be done with me, but I’m not done with you,’” Robertson explains. “For me, it’s about feeling relevant—because, as I started to approach this record, there was a period where I felt like I didn’t know what to say and I didn’t know who cared. But then I realized, y’know, I care. I like what I do, I’m a good songwriter and I’m gonna write—I’m gonna express things. So that song is about getting your confidence back—or, as one of my colleagues would say, getting your swagger back.”
On the heels of the album’s release, the Barenaked Ladies will embark on the latest iteration of the summer tours that formed such a big part of their enduring appeal. For this year’s trek, which they’ve dubbed “Last Summer on Earth 2013,” BNL are bringing along their pals and fellow pop/rock mainstays Guster and the Ben Folds Five. The tour, which hits 30 amphitheaters and arenas, kicks off June17 at the Verizon Theatre in Dallas and concludes July 30 at Celebrate Brooklyn in the borough’s Prospect Park. It includes dates at such picturesque venues as Denver’s Red Rocks (6/19), the Santa Barbara Bowl (6/22), L.A.’s Greek Theatre (6/23), the Bangor (Maine) Waterfront (7/21) and Lennox, Mass.’ Tanglewood (7/23).
“We built our career playing summer outdoor shows,” Robertson points out. “To be out there with a couple of other great bands bringing a lot of music to people—hey, it’s a nice way to spend the summer. After we put together the ‘Last Summer on Earth” tour last year, tongue firmly in cheek referencing the Mayan calendar, we thought it would be funny to just keep the ‘Last Summer on Earth’ thing going. Let’s enjoy ourselves. Let’s live like it is the last summer on earth. [Insert requisite rim shot here.] Let’s party like it’s 1999.”