Review Summary: Releasing their best album since Maroon, the Ladies think it's time to prove that they've come back here to rebuild.
In the wake of the massive success of Stunt
in 1999, the Barenaked Ladies entered a 10-year period of making their albums progressively less tongue-in-cheek. 2009 and 2010 wound up being the most trying years that the band ever faced. Between the departure of founding member and co-lead vocalist/songwriter Stephen Page, an airplane crash, and the death of Robertson's mother, many negative emotions found themselves channeled into song. The result was All in Good Time
, an album with a preponderance of somber ballads and "comical" songs that for the most part sounded like forced afterthoughts.
However, Robertson and Co. have now had three years to pick up the pieces and heal. Grinning Streak
is the result; an album that is neither grieving like All in Good Time
nor freewheeling like Stunt
opts for uptempo, happy tracks in the vein of the latter two, but the optimism is now more much more restrained. In one of the album's strongest tracks, Robertson tells us that the "odds are that we / will probably be / alright." It is a message that we've heard many times before, but what makes "Odds Are" so striking is that Robertson seems to be singing to convince himself
and his bandmates as much as he is trying to convince us. And all of this in a 3 minute pop song with a hook that would make "One Week" green with envy.
This may also be the most experimental album that the Ladies have ever cut. Although some residual influence from their early days remains, Grinning
is neither predominantly folk-y college rock a la Gordon
nor sleekly-produced alt pop-rock like Stunt
. Rather than the Beach Boys and the Beatles, the Ladies instead draw inspiration from 80s New Wave ("Best Damn Friend"), ambient ("Daydreamin'", the excellent outro of "Crawl"), and even White Stripes-esque garage rock ("Keepin' It Real"). As a whole, this works surprisingly well--"Daydreamin'" may be the first Kevin Hearn song that I view as more than filler--although the occasional misstep is evident ("Did I Just Say That Out Loud", "Smile").
Fundamentally, Grinning Streak
is a album about survival, about picking oneself up off the ground after a crisis, dusting off, and continuing to fight, laugh, and love--an extremely relevant message in today's unstable, uncertain, divisive world. While Grinning
may not be the exact album that pre-Maroon fans may be craving, it is the first album that BnL has released in 10 years that is (in many cases, significantly) better than its predecessor. Fans of the Ladies' older albums may never get their wish fulfilled, but Grinning Streak
may be enough to convince them that such a thing is no longer needed.
Track picks: "Limits", "Boomerang", "Odds Are", "Keepin' It Real", "Crawl"
Rating: 3.5/5 (A fundamentally good album whose rough spots may tempt the listener into pushing skip once or twice.)