Grinning Streak review by Barenaked Ladies

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  • Released: Jun 4, 2013
  • Sound: 8
  • Lyrics: 8
  • Overall Impression: 8
  • Reviewer's score: 8 Superb
  • Users' score: 8 (2 votes)
Barenaked Ladies: Grinning Streak

Sound — 8
Barenaked Ladies of Scarborough, Ontario, Canada were formed in 1988 by co-vocalists/guitarists Ed Robertson and Steven Page, who were joined by Jim and Andy Creegan on bass guitar and percussion respectively. Andy Creegan was later replaced by Tyler Stewart on percussion, moving to keyboards, later departing to be replaced by current keyboard player Kevin Hearn. In their 25-year, thirteen album career, they've gradually moved away from the electro-acoustic college rock sound they displayed on "Gordon" and "Stunt," the latter producing maybe their most well known track, "One Week," to a more serious alternative rock tone, whilst maintaining some of the humour and pop-rock sensibilities that they came to be known and loved for. This move was truly cemented on 2010's "All In Good Time" a more sombre album born partly out of Steven Page's departure from the band, and partly out of Ed Robertson's melancholy at losing his mother and also being involved in a plane crash, Robertson himself being at the helm at the time. However, on "Grinning Streak," their thirteenth release, the band take back their happiness, whilst maintaining the lessons they have learnt in their experiences, creating a more emotionally balanced album, erring more on the side of the thematic optimism present. Barenaked Ladies have always been noted for the harmonic vocals and wide use of instrumentation, such as banjo's and mandolins being used in some of their earlier work. However, this time they stick to a more typical four-piece arrangement, with the exception of Hearn switching between rhythm guitar and keyboards, with a synthesized element being present throughout the album on such tracks as "Limits" and "Odds Are." Overall, this album is a culmination of a quarter of a decade's worth of highs and lows, and truly shows how they've grown and matured together. Tracks: 01. "Limits" - The album opens with a synthesized bassline, working as a build into the album, programmed drumming backing it, with Tyler Stewart's drumming then laying over the top, creating an interesting dimension into the track. The lead section of Hearn's keyboard, Robertson's straightly delivered vocals, and vocoded vocal harmonies create a solid introduction to the album. 02. "Boomerang" - An optimistic piece of pop-rock, with a strong melodic hook throughout the chorus, the track being the kind that could easily be spliced into a decent quirky, romantic comedy. A good, confident single that displays the optimistic theme of the album. 03. "Off His Head" - An eclectic track mixing acoustic guitars, synthetic string lines and a vocoded vocal hook, creating a strong, electro-acoustic track, Tyler Stewart's tom-oriented drumming filling out the sound beautifully. However, a few more vocal layers would have raised the track from "quite good" to a "must-listen." 04. "Gonna Walk": A country-esque anthem of defiance in love, that is truly made great with Creegan's simple-yet-effective bassline. The backing vocals, reminiscent of doo-wop vocals aid in creating a catchy, summer chorus. 05. "Odds Are" - An infectious slice of pop-rock, the rhythmic clapping, synthesized note bends and bright-sounding acoustic guitar surrounding Robertson, Creegan and Stewart's vocals brilliantly, culminating in arguably the catchiest track on the album. 06. "Keepin' It Real" - A gritter turn in the album, as a blues-country track, made even more obvious by the inflections in Robertson's vocals (something that came as a result of him being brought up singing country music with his family). However, the distortion on the vocals add to the track. Overall, a solid track, but poorly positioned after four tracks of straight, optimistic pop-rock, and may be a low point on the album. 07. "Give It Back to You" - A down-tempo acoustic track, with perfect harmonisation between the lead and rhythym guitar. The xylophone present in the background during the second chorus onwards brighten the background whilst Stewart and Creegan as the rhythm section drive the track where it needs to go. 08. "Best Damn Friend" - The distorted guitar and the steady, backbeat drumming return in this track, which changes enough in tone from some earlier tracks, whilst not being a jarring difference. The staccato guitars, with Stewart's constant measured drumming mesh well, with Robertson's octaved harmonies working amazingly throughout the verse, with a catchy chorus to tie everything together. 09. "Did I Say That Out Loud" - Programmed drumming and synth sounds surround the precise guitar line and Robertson's vocals, leading to a synth-heavy chorus. This track could have the potential to be a big single, with the chorus being easy to sing and dance along to. However, to some fans, this, like "Odds Are" may be too reminiscent of some chart pop songs, this being the most sugary sweet offering on the album. 10. "Daydreamin'" - A chiptune introduction follows into reverb-heavy keyboard and tom-heavy drumming driving the track forward, with a more alternative rock vocal line, this time being delivered by Hearn in his lone role as lead vocalist, which reminds that the entire band are capable vocalists, so more vocal presence from Creegan, Hearn and Stewart may be beneficial in giving the band a more varied sound as this track does. 11. "Smile" - A simple, summery country song, that helps deliver the album to it's closing track. Solid, enjoyable track, but may be seen by some as filler. 12. "Crawl" - A down-tempo track, with the synthpad and guitar being reminscent of such alternative-pop-rock outfits as Coldplay, with a sweeping, ambient, synthetic outro, providing a fitting end to the album.

Lyrics — 8
Ed Robertson has displayed throughout the band's career that he is more than a competent vocalist, his presence growing in the vocal arrangements throughout the albums, culminating in the latter two albums, which, due to Page's departure have resulted in Robertson inheriting the lead vocal position, a change that many have welcome, yet with some fans still missing Page's signature warm tone, especially in signature tracks "One Week" and "Brian Wilson." However, Robertson picks up the slack in spades, with Hearn, Creegan and Stewart all taking turns in backing up, maintaining the band's signature harmonies. Robertson's vocals for the most part sound quite honest, reflecting the lyrical content. Throughout the album, there is a constant theme of optimism, with the band fully beginning to come out the other side of the darkest part of their tenure, following Page's drug arrest and departure, Robertson's plane crash, and for Robertson personally, the aforementioned death of his mother in 2011. Lyrics such as "Odds are that we will probably be alright" and "I don't care how long it takes, I will atone for my mistakes" demonstrate the uncertainty and self-deprecation that Robertson may have come to feel over the past half-decade, whilst letting the optimism and never-say-die attitude shine through, something that will connect with longtime BNL fans, who wish to see the rebirth of the band that "Grinning Steak" arguably succeeds at achieving. The lone alternate lead vocal duty on this album is taken by Kevin Hearn, the band's veteran keyboard player and rhythm guitarist, on the track "Daydreamin'." His voice on this track is more crooning and leans more towards traditional alternative rock, being vaguely reminiscent of vocal parts used by Radiohead or Sonic Youth.

Overall Impression — 8
Overall, the album displays an honest, balanced rebirth of the band, coming out the other side stronger and more confident than they presented themselves on their last offering. Those looking for the band who wrote "One Week" and "If I Had a Million Dollars" will not find what they were searching for, but may find something else they will enjoy just as much. For current BNL fans, this is an essential album and truly is their best album since 2000's "Maroon." The band has evolved greatly, with Robertson showing for the second time that he can take the reins and succeed, the band sounding a lot more comfortable in their new synth-rock-pop surroundings. Arguably the stand-out tracks on the album are "Limits," "Boomerang," "Odds Are" and "Gonna Walk," whilst "Off His Head," "Keepin' It Real" and "Smile" may be the most underwhelming on the album. The optimistic tone, the great production and Robertson's honest vocal delivery help to make this a great album, albeit one that may divide opinion. If this album were to be stolen/lost, it would be re-purchased without question.

1 comment sorted by best / new / date

    While I agree mostly with your assessments of each song. The review of "Off His Head" is bang on. I Really like the song, but it is just missing the one or two elements that I think prevented it from being a single. Good Read, Thanks.