Born On A Pirate Ship

Barenaked Ladies

Reprise, 1996

http://bnlmusic.com

REVIEW BY: Ken DiTomaso

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/11/2010

On this, their third album, The Barenaked Ladies finds themselves largely lacking in direction. Original keyboardist and percussionist Andrew Creeggan had quit the band, leaving the band as a four-piece for the first (but not last) time in their career. Co-frontmen Steven Page and Ed Robertson returned to collaborating on songwriting, which they had largely abandoned on their sophomore record, Maybe You Should Drive. However, for the most part, they find themselves unable to recapture the same magic that their collaborations on debut album Gordon had.

"The Old Apartment" was the band's first minor hit in the United States, and it remains one of their most popular songs. On a superficial level, it's easy to see why, since it's got a great vocal delivery and attention-grabbing dynamic changes between the verse and chorus. But the barely two-note riff is flimsy, and the song does little to change things up throughout the course of the song. So by the end, what initially sounded like a hard rock stomp has worn down into a dull grind. But it isn’t songs like this which drag the record down; it’s the presence of all the slow songs which really does it in.

The Barenaked Ladies has written their share of great ballads, but none are anywhere to be found here, which is ironic, since this album had more of them than nearly any of their others. On "Break Your Heart," the band tries their hand at displaying powerful emotions. But most of the song merely meanders without doing much interesting. It only breaks free of the monotony during the bridge, which culminates in Page screaming his lungs out to deliver his heartbroken message. But the vocal delivery rings false and the bridge can't help but come across as silly instead of cathartic, and it's at exactly that point where the song falls flat on its face. bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250

There are several other ballads, none as cringeworthy as "Break Your Heart," but none that do anything particularly noteworthy either. They’re just mediocre songs, performed unremarkably. On the other hand, "Just A Toy" isn't a ballad, but it's even more of a failure. It compounds an already mediocre song with bizarre production that muffles the vocals throughout the first half of the track. So their attempt at a compelling atmosphere just feels claustrophobic and oppressive. Even when the track starts getting more normal, it's still a slog trying to listen to it. It doesn’t help that the song starts at its most upbeat and then gradually loses steam as it goes along.

Of course, since this release is such a mixed bag, there are some truly fantastic tunes mixed in with the weaker ones. "Straw Hat And Old Dirty Hank" is a spectacular bluegrass-styled cut. Clever lyrics were always one of their strengths and they really outdo themselves on this track. It tells the tale of a farmer who stalks a female singer and nearly every line is a gem. "Mother nature and mother earth / Are two of three women who dictate what I'm worth" Page sings during the first verse. The atmosphere and instrumentation effectively convey both the earthy roots of the farmer and the paranoid nature of his desires. The wailing violin part is especially evocative. It's not only the disc’s best track but also among the best the band has ever done.

Another clear highlight is tucked away in the middle of the record. "I Live With It Everyday" (co-written with The Lilac Time’s Stephen Duffy) sounds very unique, surrounded on both sides by the most bland songs on the album. It's centered around a thick as molasses synth-bass rhythm and an angular verse, topping it all off is a soaring chorus that will get your fists pumping. As the album winds down, the band leaves us with the most upbeat cut on the record. "Shoebox" is a welcome shot of power-pop energy with great lyrics about a youthful affair with an older woman. The "Lie-e-eye-eye-ies" hook in the chorus will have you singing along and wondering why much of this album is so bland when the band is capable of tracks like this.

While this record has its share of successes, by and large the songwriting just isn't up to snuff. While nearly all of the lesser songs have something to grab the listener, “Call Me Calmly” has fun staccato strings for example and "I Know" deserves mention for it's comical lyrics and ever-changing arrangement, but those little touches don’t make up for the mediocrity of the songs on the whole. When they hit the mark they're great, but for the most part on Born On A Pirate Ship, the Barenaked Ladies finds themselves out at sea.

Rating: C+

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© 2010 Ken DiTomaso and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Reprise, and is used for informational purposes only.