Music: Ladies Night

Canada's Barenaked Ladies finally get their due in America with their smirky Pop

Aug 26, 1999 at 2:06 pm
Barenaked Ladies

After almost a decade, Barenaked Ladies' slow-and-steady wooing of the United States finally came to fruition last summer. Upon its July release, Stunt, the Canadian band's fourth full-length studio album, debuted at No. 3. Stunt's long-term, multi-platinum success was buoyed by the ubiquitous single, "One Week," which turns an up-tempo, fairly routine relationship song into a freestyle rap that name-checks, among other things, The X-Files, Snickers, Sting, LeAnn Rimes and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

If anything, the fact that "One Week" went to No. 1 proves the Ladies' appeal extends beyond the wise-ass collegiate cult that has embraced the group from the beginning. Their show-stealing displays last summer on the H.O.R.D.E. tour and their sublimely hilarious performance on the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards pre-show broadcast only cemented the Ladies' status as one of the few legitimate breakthrough acts of the previous year.

But despite the band's amazing sales and undeniable live prowess, the fact is they didn't deliver anything brilliant or different with Stunt. Its coupling of class clown and sensitive romantic is a hard marriage to digest in the span of a three-minute Pop song. The group's strength — its members ability to combine humor with sadness (sample lyric: "I'm the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral.") — can also be its weakness. They tend to kill themselves with cleverness. As a result, even when they are striving to be earnest, it's easy to assume they're wearing smirks.

"One Week" bears out this self-absorbed prankster philosophy. A combination of acoustic Pop, pseudo-funky guitar and white-boy Rap breaks (which approach four-words-per-second), the track crams the aforementioned references into a story of a dysfunctional relationship. Is it quirky and catchy? You betcha. And, even without being overplayed on Top 40 radio, will it sound dated in three years? Yep.

Still, record buyers weren't thinking long-term and, in light of the band's tepid track record south of the Canadian border in the past, Stunt's meteoric sales shocked a band resigned to its quirky outsider status here.

"We had no idea," admits singer/guitarist Steven Page. "I thought maybe it would enter in the Top 30 or something. We had built up a pretty amazing fan base. And I thought all those fans would run out and buy the record, and it would enter at No. 30 and then disappear into oblivion."

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Barenaked Ladies — which also includes singer/guitarist Ed Robertson, drummer Tyler Stewart, bassist Jim Creeggan and keyboardist Kevin Hearn — hung around the Top 10 longer than recent recordings by either Marilyn Manson or the Beastie Boys. Stunt's sales stamina was due, in part, to the fact that the Ladies have figured out how to play the game.

"We went out and worked pretty hard doing the handshaking kind of thing before the record came out," Page says. "I think a lot of times record companies don't have artists who will agree to doing a lot of the glad-handing. But you make a record, and you want people to hear it. We certainly had the sense that this was the record that the record company was going to push for us. We went out and made the best record that we thought we had made — at least in a long time, if not ever — and we'd have hated for them to drop the ball on it and say, 'Well, you guys didn't go out and do what we asked you to do.' So we said, 'Fine, OK, we'll go out and shake some hands at some retailers' head offices, if that's what it takes.'

"(So) I just figured that meant (Reprise) wasn't going to give up on it if the single didn't do that well. We're more used to that side of the equation than (the record company saying), 'This is our big record of the year.' "

Love them or hate them, Barenaked Ladies' patented formula for success is a glaring exception to the problems with artist development in the music industry. Most new acts are expected to hit the mark right out of the gate, or run the risk of being dropped for lack of immediate results.

The Ladies' Steven Page puts the issue into very real perspective by offering a hypothetical scenario of what might have happened to relative slow-starters U2 if they had first come around in 1998: "You think, 'Jeez, October (U2's second album) didn't do so hot.' So you dump them after October. Then they get re-signed and put out War on some Internet-only label, and that sells 15,000 copies and that's the end of that."

Don't scoff. A like fate could have easily befallen Barenaked Ladies, possibly even in their homeland. While the band's first album, 1992's Gordon, sold 900,000 copies in Canada, its second, Maybe You Should Drive, sold only a third of that figure. But with each effort, the band stuck to its guns, alternating potshots and poignancy, hooks and hilarity, shtick and technical skill. Rather than cutting them loose, for whatever reason, Reprise opted to play its hunch.

Page offers his theory on how the Barenaked Ladies stayed employed: "I think, frankly, we never got dropped because we sold lots of copies of our first record in Canada. We always sold just enough to recoup everything, but it sure looks nice for a label to say, 'We've got five albums with this band before they broke.' And maybe it will set a precedent for other labels to go, 'Maybe it will take five records before they make it big.' "

And big they became. Page remembers vividly the moment he knew "One Week" was a hit: "I was walking down the street in Virginia Beach, and some guy in a convertible was driving down the street, and it was pumping out of it. I thought that was cool. That was always my dream, to hear someone cruising down the street with one of our songs blasting out of a convertible."

There was another defining moment for Page and the others, and it happened at the aforementioned MTV Video Music Awards.

"We walked up onstage and started doing our thing, and I thought, 'Oh, this is great. We're finally cool,' " Page says. "And then Marilyn Manson (and his mostly naked, bombshell fiancée, Rose MacGowan) walked up, and we were no longer cool."

But the real clincher came later, while the Ladies were seated behind the Anti-Christ Superstar's entourage. And it couldn't have originated from a more unexpected source.

"(Manson's) dad was sitting right in front of us," Page says. "He turned around and is like, 'I may have produced the Anti-Christ, but I love you guys.' "

Words every musician longs to hear.

BARENAKED LADIES perform at Riverbend on Tuesday.