Barenaked Ladies mix humor, musicianship

CD REVIEWS

July 23, 1998|By J.D. Considine Country Hal Ketchum

Barenaked Ladies

Stunt (Reprise 46963)

As big-city suburbs go, Scarborough, Ontario, seems fairly unexceptional. Located in the northeastern corner of Toronto, it's an area known mostly for light industry, tract housing and doughnut shops.

Yet that seemingly mundane environment has been a remarkable font of wit. Scarborough was the mid-'80s home of Wayne Campbell, the snarky stoner character created by Mike Myers (when Myers went to "Saturday Night Live," "Wayne's World" was moved to Aurora, Ill.). A few years later, the suburb spawned the Barenaked Ladies, a group with little more musical ability than Campbell but boasting a similarly sly worldview.

Where American comic rockers like Nerf Herder or the Bloodhound Gang tend to go for broad-stroke commentary and gross-out humor, the Ladies opt for a more low-key approach, stressing wry wit and cheerful self-deprecation. The Ladies' subtle-but-smart strategy paid off, too, gradually building enough of an audience to make 1996's "Rock Spectacle" EP a genuine hit.

As clever as their lyrics may be, the Ladies have never forgotten that it's the melody that ultimately sells a song. So even though their third album, "Stunt," is chockablock with quotable couplets, its strongest hooks are all of the hum-along variety.

"One Week" is typical. A bemused look at romantic misconnections, its tuneful verses are framed by punchy, power-pop guitar chords, and are full of such drolleries as "I have a tendency to wear my mind on my sleeve/I have a history of taking off my shirt." But the song also occasionally slips into a sort of mild reggae thing, complete with a mock-boastful rap: "Like Kurosawa, I make mad films/OK, I don't make films/But if I did they'd have a samurai ..."

Completely silly, sure, but that's part of the band's charm. The Barenaked Ladies are such good-hearted goofs that they even make incipient alcoholism seem like frolicsome fun in "Alcohol." After all, it's hard to be alarmed at lines like "Alcohol, my permanent accessory/Alcohol, a party-time necessity" when they're so obviously offered in jest.

But as anyone who has ever bought a comedy album knows, jokes on their own aren't enough to support an album through repeated playings. Fortunately, the Ladies are even better musicians than they are comedians.

From the soaring harmonies of "I'll Be That Girl" to the tuneful uplift of "Never Is Enough," the songs on "Stunt" would be enjoyable even if you didn't understand a single word of the lyrics.

Some of the band's pop smarts come from its ability to reduce new-wave rock down to its melodic essence. Mostly, though it's the fact all five members sing like angels and do so frequently (the harmonies on "It's All Been Done" are themselves worth the price of the CD). All told, "Stunt" offers a near-perfect blend of words and music. ***1/2 I Saw the Light (Curb 77895)

There was a time when the difference between country and rock was as plain as the difference between a Stetson and a pair of Beatle boots. Not anymore. Take, for example, the title tune from Hal Ketchum's new album, "I Saw the Light." Even though the arrangement is pure Nashville, from the fiddle-lead intro to the pedal steel guitar fills, there's no mistaking the pop content of the song's Todd Rundgren-written melody. Ketchum, though, is an ace at blurring borders, and uses that ability to make his music seem all the more universal. So it hardly matters whether "When Love Looks Back at You" is a country tune with a pop feel or vice-versa - either way, it's just as catchy. ***

J.D. Considine

Pop/Rock

Ace of Base

Cruel Summer (Arista 19021)

As cover tunes go, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect match than Ace of Base and the Bananarama oldie "Cruel Summer." Not only does the Swedish quartet expertly update the song's synth-powered dance pulse, but the sweet, sad sound of Jenny and Linn Berggren is perfectly suited to the lTC song's tuneful melancholy. If only the rest of the Aces' third album, "Cruel Summer," were as kind to the group. Although "Don't Go Away" and the throbbing "Tokyo Girl" convey many of the same strengths that made "The Sign" so appealing, such songs are in the minority. Instead, the album is loaded down with shabby Abba-esque confections like "Donnie" and "Cecelia," which only demonstrate how much the group still has to learn. **

J.D. Considine

Emm Gryner

Public (Mercury 314 558 460)

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