The Barenaked Ladies

Canadian Classics: Barenaked Ladies “Gordon”

Published On May 8, 2013 | By Danny Hamilton | Albums, Featured Artists, Reviews

On the inside of Gordon’s jacket, there is a list delineating some of the band’s favourite Gordons. It’s a long list, long enough to make me suspect that toward the end they may have just started making up Gordons or adding them to the list whether they knew of them or not. But I like to think not, I like to think they just realized that they admired a lot of Gordons and so named the album, and that was all there was to it.

It may be viewed as a detractor to its integrity, were it any other album, that Gordon is ultimately the result of the band winning a contest. However, for this particular work, it seems entirely fitting. As a debut album for The Barenaked Ladies it completely surpassed expectations, and remains, I would hold, their best work to date. It was released in 1992 by Sire Records and its track list was something of an amalgamation of songs from their three self-released tapes, plus several new tunes (as an interesting side note, the third of those tapes, Barenaked Ladies or The Yellow Tape has now been certified platinum in Canada). There is scarcely a song to be found on Gordon that the average Canadian wouldn’t recognize if they heard it, from “Be My Yoko Ono” to “Brian Wilson” to” Grade 9″ to… you know what, I’ll just throw in a track listing.

The Barnaked Ladies - Gordon Hello City
Enid
Grade 9
Brian Wilson
Be My Yoko Ono
Wrap Your Arms Around Me
What A Good Boy
The King of Bedside Manor
Box Set
I Love You
New Kid (On the Block)
Blame it on Me
The Flag
If I Had $1000000
Crazy

Who among us can’t belt the chorus of “Brian Wilson”? What self respecting Canadian (or American, for that matter) can’t sing along with each of Steven Page’s responses in “If I Had a Million Dollars?” “But not a real green dress, that’s cruel,” is now a fixture of the Canadian vernacular, and it still gets a laugh 21 years later. “The King of Bedside Manor” is my personal nomination for a Canadian Shibboleth, if you can’t at least correctly headbang in time with the three shots that punctuate each chorus, you’re an impostor and you’ll be turned away at the door. That song has also become legend for starting the BNL tradition of recording one track per album naked, and no, that’s not some industry jargon, that means they stripped naked to record the song, ever true to their namesake.

Now, I could go on and on about the astounding musicianship exhibited by the band on this album. Their instrumental intricacies are as practiced, smooth, and elegantly executed as their precise harmonies and vocal interactions, but beyond the technicalities of the music, they prove themselves on a larger scale to be masters of genre. They drift effortlessly from this style to that, picking up jazz on “I Love You”, latino lounge on “Box Set”, folk on “If I Had $1000000″ and something entirely new and entirely their own on “Grade 9″. Indeed, it seems when they didn’t have a musical genre to emulate they just invented one, this upbeat not-quite-rock that eludes description, it simply must be heard.

But even beyond their construction of an intensely engaging, musically challenging and thematically satisfying album, there is some element to Gordon that can’t be attributed to these qualities alone. It’s fun. You can feel it the whole way through, as much in the space between tracks as in the tracks themselves. Even on slower songs like “The Flag” or “Blame it on Me”, it really is a good time. They play with this wonderful, nervous, theatrical energy usually reserved for live performance, and listening, it’s so obvious that the band was having a blast playing this thing that you can’t help but have a blast yourself. Gordon is the best translation of the feeling of a live show to a studio album that I know of.

The Barenaked Ladies have a reputation as the comic relief, a troupe of funnymen who play goofy music and spend as much time joking around onstage and in studio as they do playing music. In a way, I think this is good, and I think it’s what they set out to achieve and I think it’s in part responsible for their legendary live shows and their spectacular studio dynamic. However, it’s important to remember that there’s much more to this band than that, that their “goofy” songs are profoundly clever, and their humour and good nature is an appropriate accessory to their persona, rather than the defining feature of it. Gordon is a vivid demonstration of that idea. But, as I’ve said, my words can do only so much to convey all this, especially so in the case of The Barenaked Ladies. They simply must be heard.

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