Friday, November 19, 2010

Concerts Worth Returning To: Rock Spectacle Ages Well For The Barenaked Ladies!

The Good: Good vocals, Fun songs, Generally decent instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: SHORT, "Live" noise conceit, Some less memorable tracks.
The Basics: A very average, but fun, live album, Rock Spectacle is a nice way to get a good variety of early Barenaked Ladies songs.

"Live" albums suffer greatly when I review them, not because I am prejudiced against the entire concept, but because I value new material, especially from talented musical artists. So, even recommending Rock Spectacle is a pretty big deal for me. It is a rare thing indeed that I find myself recommending a live album. My wife recently picked up Rock Spectacle because she loved four of the tracks on it and for those into the Barenaked Ladies before the mainstream success they achieved with the single "One Week," this live album might well be one of the best "best of" investments.

Released in 1996 when the Barenaked Ladies were still a Canadian and college town band. The recording is a live rendition of songs that were popular in those communities from the band - "Brian Wilson," "The Old Apartment" and "If I Had $1,000,000" as well as songs that were lesser-known, like “Jane," "Hello City" and "What A Good Boy." The album, rather annoyingly does start off with the crowd cheering to let listeners know it is a live album, as well as including noises from the crowd as they react to the stories told on the latter half of track eleven. The audience even sings along during "If I Had $1,000,000" and while that might be wonderful for the time and place, it replays poorly on the disc. In other words, it was probably much more exciting to be at the concerts than it is to listen to all of the people who were there now.

With eleven tracks (twelve songs when one counts "Uncle Elwyn" on Track 11) occupying only 49:08, Rock Spectacle is a good anthology of the Barenaked Ladies' works at the time. All of the songs are written by Steven Page and Ed Robertson of the band and the quintet (at the time, which included Page, Robertson, Jim Creegan, Kevin Hearn, and Tyler Stewart) plays all of their own instruments and they sing all of their own songs. They are not involved in the production of this album, but it is hard to argue this was not the overall sound they wanted when one considers it was culled from two live events.

Rock Spectacle is a pop-rock album which features the characteristic sound of the Barenaked Ladies. The Barenaked Ladies alternate between very traditional-sounding rock ballads ("What A Good Boy," "Jane") and themes that are little more than catchy jungles ("If I Had $1,000,000"). While the band makes rock and roll songs that actually rock, like "The Old Apartment," they tend to be much more about the lyrics than the music. Indeed, listening to "The Old Apartment" on this album, one is caught by how large sections of the song are actually very simple guitar riffs broken up by lighter, more melodic sections. Outside "When I Fall" and "If I Had $1,000,000," the Barenaked Ladies sound very much like a traditional guitar, bass, drums rock band. While some of the songs have obvious keyboard influence, like "Life, In A Nutshell," the guitars still dominate for the most part.

Vocally, the Barenaked Ladies on Rock Spectacle are a very masculine band. The songs are performed primarily by Page and Robertson and they both have voices that have decent range. While one it tenor, the other more in the baritone range, they are distinct in that they both manage to sound completely articulate and clear, even when they sing fast. There is not much speed-singing on Rock Spectacle, but with ambitious guitar solos on songs like "These Apples," the singers narrowly avoid being drown out by their own instruments. Regardless, the vocals are not produced and hearing men who can sing (as opposed to yell, scream, etc.) is refreshing.

As for the lyrics, the Barenaked Ladies have a storytelling musical voice which makes them very charismatic. They tend to playfully bat around a single premise and make jingles that are very pop-sounding. At the same time, they are able to tackle more serious elements, like social commentary from a windowwasher's perspective on "When I Fall." On that, the band muses on the corporate world with lines like "I look in the boardroom; a modern pharaoh's tomb / I'd gladly swap places, if they care to dive / They're lined up at the window, peer down into limbo / They're frightened of jumping, in case they survive" ("When I Fall") which are certainly more complex and intelligent than most lines written for pop music these days.

The Barenaked Ladies, who are all men, also manage to tell musical storysongs about the obvious pop standards like love. On Rock Spectacle, love is underrepresented, but makes a notable appearance on "Jane." That song is a flirtatious song of longing for love and its heartfelt lines "I'd bring her gold and frankincense and myrrh / She thought that I was making fun of her / She made me feel I was fourteen again / That's why she thinks it's cooler if we'd just stay friends / Jane doesn't think a man could ever be faithful / Jane isn't giving me a chance to be shameful . . . I wrote a letter, she should have got it yesterday / That life could be better by being together / Is what I cannot explain to Jane" ("Jane") are enough to make anyone who has loved from afar and wanted to take a risk nostalgic. The song works and it does not feel either cheap or "done" before.

And Rock Spectacle includes the usual "If I Had $1,000,000" which is a charming jingle. The album also includes the humorous rap "Uncle Elwyn." With its simplistic rhymes "My Uncle Elwyn is tall / My Elwyn is small / My Elwyn plays a mean basketball" ("Uncle Elwyn") the song is more of a jingle than anything else, but it is notable in that it is unlike anything else the band has performed on this or any other album up until this point.

Ultimately, Rock Spectacle is fun, even if it is short and the banter in track eleven is not terribly deep or revealing of the group. The album is fun and the songs are good and in this case, that is enough to recommend to anyone who wants to hear something different from a rock and roll band.

The best track is "Jane," the low point is the unmemorable "Straw Hat And Old Dirty Hank."

For other works by quirky musical artists, please check out my reviews of:
Yes, Virginia – The Dresden Dolls
Then: The Early Years – They Might Be Giants
Actually (2-disc version) – Pet Shop Boys


For other album and single reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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