Catching Up With Steven Page and Barenaked Ladies

To me, Barenaked Ladies is a very important band. Their importance stems from being first: the first album I bought, the first time I learned all the words to every song, the first live show I went to go see, and they’re the band who got me into music in general, by following the trails of their influence. I developed a system of tracking down references to other artists (who the hell were The Housemartins anyway?) in their music, and collecting them in an ever expanding web of BNL connectivity. So it was a surprise when I was told in 2003 that I had outgrown the band after a decade of devotion (I was told by a friend who I also outgrew), when their newest record Everything to Everyone disappointed me. Hell, it disappointed a lot of folks, and they became less important despite their building and partially shaping of my musical tastes. You’ve gotta start somewhere, right? And things do change, of course. My interest in the band waned for years.

In 2009, Steven Page announced his departure from BNL, and my interest piqued to their music again. I dug out their albums and remembered what I liked about them, realizing that they wouldn’t be my BNL anymore. My favorite band member was leaving and  he was the reason I enjoyed their music so much. Everyone has their favorite member of a band, right? We’ve all got our favorite Beatle. For the record mine is Paul, and my favorite Barenaked Ladie is Steven Page. I’m not trying to evoke a comparison on quality or influence musically, however in my experience a great number of folks get The Beatles thrust upon their unconstructed tastes at an early age, while others have to search for their own baseline to experience music, relying on whatever else is around to sustain the thirst for rock and roll. Besides, Paul McCartney likes them and their large harmony range just fine. So with Page gone, why listen to BNL? I didn’t have an answer, and for a while that was OK.

The Vanity Project, a collaboration between Stephen Duffy and Page was released while the latter was still in BNL. A few tracks in the album felt light, but it had some interesting songs and the trademark lyrical darkness behind Page’s warm tenor croon. The full bravado of his voice also made an appearance, another selling point of his:  over-the-top singing that I truly wish I had the ability to achieve. It wasn’t bad, for the first shot of pseudo-solo work from Page. 2009 (a busy year for sure) saw both Page and BNL release albums. Page recorded with the Art of Time Ensemble, a collection of covers called A Singer Must Die, including songs from Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, The Mountain Goats, and Radiohead (which must be heard to be believed) amongst others in March. Following that up, in October with his first actual solo album Page One. April saw the release of BNL’s All In Good Time. I have not listened to the album, and part of me is a little hesitant. I listened to a few tracks however, and all I heard was the absence of the familiar voice I had grown to expect and identify with this band. Who would want to listen to an album described by All Music as “…being good music for a quiet Sunday afternoon at home,” from a band that only years ago made you feel like a kid and say underwear, anyway?

Page One however, had more of what I expected, and enjoyed, from Page, from BNL, and from my musical preferences. Page put together a smart, at times bitter and others sweet, album of pop tunes. I’ve played it through a few times, and enjoyed it, but its been sitting for a few weeks, through the gap of new music that’s cropped up in the last few months–TV on the Radio, Okkervil River, soon to include Death Cab for Cutie–and I’ve got no strong pull to get back to it, yet. Part of that is my personal changes: I don’t have time to listen to music for long periods of my day, and there hasn’t been an album that grabs my attention in the same way when I was younger, to justify me in making that sort of time happen. Another part is, I suspect, comfort as a fan.

When Eisley came out with their first two EPs in 2003, I fell right into them. Beautiful soaring harmonies, lovely and at times dark compositions, fit right into my tastes at the time. In 2005, they came out with their full length Room Noises, and I was disappointed. In two years, their sound was nothing different from their EPs, and included nothing stronger than the 4 tracks of Marvelous Things. The same friend who insisted I had outgrown BNL was incredulous that I did not enjoy an album that sounded completely like the sound of the band two years ago. Perhaps I didn’t understand what it takes to develop a sound, and what it means to come into your own as a musician, and the strength needed to move four (or five) minds in a different direction after going in a particular (and successful) way in the past. As a fan, as a connoisseur, as a consumer, I wanted to hear growth, and I want no stagnation in my rock and roll. I found the same issue with this album, and while Page One isn’t stagnation and exhibits growth–its much better than The Vanity Project–it is comfortable because it is everything I could have expected from Steven Page’s first solo project. There’s nothing wrong, or disappointing with that feeling, but there’s also not a lot of surprise or excitement in listening to the album. There’s that lingering feeling that All in Good Time might be just as comfortable an experience as Page One, and I’m sure curiosity will win out over any other concerns about how I spend my Sunday afternoons, and I’ll give the album a listen. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with quiet weekends at home, catching up with old friends. Those weekends might be coming, and I’ll probably reach for these two albums when they do, but I don’t think I’m ready for these bands to soundtrack my life. Not yet at least, and maybe never again. 
Upon reflection, its less that I don’t want these bands to soundtrack my life, but that I don’t want a soundtrack to my life anymore. I’m becoming more involved in the sounds that are already there, and the people and things that make them. This is more about coming to terms with my changing relationship with music, less to do with the notion of outgrowing a band and more to do with enjoying rather than living through others’ art. Also:
Page One is a solid album. I don’t think I talked it up enough, or made that case as strong as I could have, or could even realize that at first blush. -JD

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