Steven Page (with the Art of Time Ensemble)’s “A Singer Must Die” – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  3.5 / 5  stars

According to Wikipedia, A Singer Must Die falls under the “orchestrated pop” genre.  If that is accurate, then this is my first orchestrated pop purchase.

And it’s a good one.

Along with the Art of Time Ensemble, Steven Page arranged and performed ten covers — if you include the Barenaked Ladies’ “Running Out of Ink” — that run the emotional gamut and mark a departure from the instrumental sound we’ve come to associate with Steven Page, both as a member of BnL and as the main force behind the Vanity Project.  Here and there throughout his recorded career, there have been strings or horns, but this is the first major release on which he is backed almost entirely by the orchestration of an ensemble.

And yet, the overall tones, themes, and vocal textures are still very much the Steven Page we’ve come to know, particularly in the music he has written and performed this decade.  Page always seemed to be the more serious one in his often comedic BnL partnership with Ed Robertson — the “It’s All Been Done” to Robertson’s “One Week,” if you will.  Throughout this decade, though, Page’s preferences have swung even more to the extreme, considering the beautiful, heartbreaking ballads of Maroon (2000), the topical tracks like “Celebrity” and “War on Drugs” on Everything to Everyone (2003), and the sober “Bad Day” on the otherwise upbeat Snacktime! (2008).

In a sense, the conception of this project could be traced as far back as the 2007 Barenaked Ladies Are Men track “Running Out of Ink,” on which Page voiced the narrator’s social and personal downward spiral made all the more distressing by a loss of creative energy, the bag of of all he’s ever written being tossed off a bridge, bleeding ink, and sinking out of sight by the close of the song.

Now that Page has struck out on his own, the pressures described in that song must be an even more real force for him.  As a solo artist, he will either sink or swim as a result of his efforts alone, and that must be a frightening, if thrilling, experience after two decades in a five-piece band.

A Singer Must Die carries all the maturity and experience you would expect from an artist who has spent more time in the headlines than on record the past few years. The drug-related arrest.  The breakup.

Enough.

At last, Page is back on the top of his game, having released a record that relaxes and frets, breathes and pants for breath, escapes and runs head on into pain and sorrow — an excellent record.

Steven Page (with the Art of Time Ensemble)'s "A Singer Must Die" (2010)

Steven Page's "A Singer Must Die" (2010)

The piano and string-heavy “Lion’s Teeth” kicks off the album on a suspenseful note, tension building with every second that passes.  Page builds up to a near-scream as he sings, “And my arms get sore, and my palms start to sweat; and the tears roll down my face ’til my cheeks are hot and red and soaking wet…”

He goes on to sing, “There’s no good way to end this — anyone can see there’s just great big you and little old me.”

What a way to kick off his first individual effort following the break with BnL!

The greatest strength of A Singer Must Die is the arrangement of tracks.  The opener is followed by the initially calm and beautiful opening verses of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You.”  Fiona Apple set the bar high for cover versions of this track, and Page was up to the task, even if the middle to end of the song suffers from some self-indulgent orchestration.

Next comes a track that surprised me — I never knew I could enjoy a Rufus Wainright song.  Sounding like it came from an early twentieth century crooner’s repertoire, “Foolish Love” further advances the feeling expressed on “I Want You,” if from a different angle.

Thanks to the Art of Time Ensemble, “Running Out of Ink” is even more manic and frantic here than the original Barenaked Ladies version was, and this is saying something.  For me, this is the thematic centerpiece of the album, a song originally co-written by Page himself.  Throughout rock music history, the greatest songwriters have turned to covers when they were themselves “running out of ink.”

Thankfully, Page is not, as he has set the release date for his first solo album proper for later this year.

“A Singer Must Die” and “Taxi Ride” are excellent companion pieces, the former expressing the dangers of self-expression with fitting sarcasm and the latter expressing a bittersweet departure that includes near-hallucinations and the sad, pleading, distressed vocals that few can pull off so convincingly and expressively as Page can.

If “Taxi Ride” is the low point, emotionally speaking, of this record, then “Tonight We Fly” is just the pick-me-up that it needs.  This is a case of perfect lyrics, perfect performance, and perfect timing.

“Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” is easily the most heartrending track on A Singer Must Die, and is an exemplary case of Page’s ability to translate a fairly straightforward indie rock track by the Weakerthans into an emotive, beautiful masterpiece.  If there is one track that makes me think of the sad (if not so shocking) news of Page’s departure from BnL last year, this is it.

“For We Are the King of the Buidoir” is, unsurprisingly, a wonderfully quirky song originally written and performed by the Magnetic Fields.  Again, timing is everything as Page’s spot-on rendition of this little gem is right where it needed to be, as a transition between the solemnity of “Virtute” and the frenzied madness of “Paranoid Android,” in and of itself a perfectly placed cover of the Radiohead classic.  After all, what better way to conclude a post-breakup solo album than with lines like “ambition makes you look pretty ugly, kicking and squealing” and “when I am king, you will be first against the wall with your opinion which is of no consequence at all”?

I will be the first in line for Steven Page’s first solo album of original material when it arrives later this year, but for now, A Singer Must Die has served to at least whet my appetite for new material from a man who is arguably one of the most talented singer/songwriters of the past two decades, alongside others like Ben Folds, Elliott Smith, Jakob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, and Jeff Tweedy who have shaped the sound of modern rock music.

If A Singer Must Die is a necessary transition effort before an entirely original release, then it is a promising one.  The choices here are excellent — both obscure and ambitious — and the performances are first rate.

In the end, though, a singer’s death may be compelling, but his imminent rebirth is all the more exciting…

REVIEW: Steven Page’s “Page One” (2010) – Special to the LS Blog

By Ben Neal:

RATING: 4.5 / 5 stars

The first album I ever fell in love with was BNL’s Maroon, which was the band’s last real presence on the consciousness of the mainstream public (in America, at least). Maroon starts out light and entertaining enough with the first five songs, but the back half of the album was where the beauty was to be found. Each track became progressively darker and dealt with issues varying from adultery to a cynical view of idealism to celebrity and political satire with a great level of success. I still listen to it as much as I did that Fall of 2001, and like a great novel or a great film it still packs the same punch, even though the songs mean something different for me than they did back then. From that point on, I was hooked on BNL and in particular, the songs sung by Steven Page. Page’s songs always had a certain quintessential quality: contrasting bright sounds with dark lyrics that always had a bit of irony and double meaning, and he was never afraid to look back and be referential towards his influences, be they musical or literary.

Why am I writing about a decade-old album when reviewing Steven Page’s latest album Page One? In some ways, Page One represents the full evolution of an artist and capitalizes on the potential of Maroon, both musically and thematically. Where Maroon was ultimately about taking (or at least, trying or wanting to) charge and control of one’s life, Page One is about finally doing just that.

Page One kicks off with “A New Shore”, a metaphorical journey about beginning anew and being hopeful, and frankly I can think of no better way for Page to start this album. It’s a song you did not expect, from the horn-heavy composition to the hopeful nature of the song; whereas many fans expected this is to be a more morbid record, this is a signal we are in for a more optimistic and bright album that anyone could have expected. While the story of the song is told via nautical references, the subtext is pretty clear and addresses his departure from his role as a “black mark” in a cheerful band by saying “I forget whether I was pushed or jumped aboard and after all of this time what is the difference?” “A New Shore”’s use of metaphor is a reminder that some of the best BNL songs were always told by allegory (a la “Bank Job” or “When I Fall”).

Indecision is a rather odd choice to follow-up A New Shore, since it seems to be a polar opposite to the latter’s emphasis on making a change and being happy with it. “Indecision” actually dates back a few years and was never included on BNL albums due to their shift away from songs co-written by anyone outside of the band, and is reminiscent of songs like “Upside Down” or “Bull in a China Shop.” That being said, it is a very strong song that represents some of the best sounds you will hear on most contemporary albums, even if it feels slightly out of place on this album. Ironically, it makes a good retro-response to “I Have Learned”’s, where Ed Robertson sings “You’re not comfortable until you’re not/when things get wonderful, you get hot.”

Next up is the folksy, but extremely powerful “Clifton Springs,” which Page has described as one of the most personal songs on the album. It follows a pretty straightforward personal narrative that, ironically, tells the story of the pratfalls of not trusting yourself and of being held hostage by “indecision.”

Page One (Steven Page, 2010)

Page One (Steven Page, 2010)

Up next is what some would call an anti-matrimonial trilogy of “Entourage,” “Marry Me,” and “All the Young Monogamists.” However, I don’t see these songs as an attack on marriage or monogamy at all. “Entourage” in the tradition of “Sell Sell Sell” and “Celebrity” represents a biting satire on the state of big time celebrity, whereas “Marry Me” and “Monogamists” examine marriage and serious relationships from a jaded perspective to be sure (this is Steven Page, after all), but they both ultimately embrace the relationships. “Monogamists” also has been self-described by Page as his first true love song, albeit one with jaded protagonists and features some beautiful strings and is one of the album’s highlights.

“She’s Trying to Save Me” and “Over Joy” represent a change both musically and thematically from the earlier songs in the album and sound like reminiscent fresh pop music from the 60s and 70s, yet deal with the destructive effects that depression can have on relationships. Page has always soared highest in my mind when singing about these issues (“This is Where It Ends,” “War on Drugs,” etc.) and does not disappoint here. In particular, “Over Joy” is an amazingly beautiful song that is perfectly produced and Page’s voice is wonderful here with every inflection expertly enacted. “Over Joy” also does what Page does best: contrast dark lyrics with a sunny composition (see “So.Cal” from The Vanity Project as another example). Personally, I find it to be my favorite track on this excellent album.

The next three tracks could not be more divergent. “If You Love Me” is a brazen and bold track that borders on camp, but ultimately works more than I could have ever imagined and serves as a reminder of Page’s origins as a Duran Duran (the original lead singer of Duran Duran, Stephen Duffy co-wrote much of the album with Page) devotee. “Leave Her Alone” is as Chris Moore noted in his review, a quite dynamic track and one that harkens back to the “big band” era of yesteryear. Like “When You Dream” from Stunt, it speaks to parenthood, but from a very different perspective. “Queen of America,” on the other hand is unlike anything I’ve heard from the BNL/Page canon before. It tells the story of a drag queen and explores how gay culture is often co-opted by mainstream society, and the indulgent overproduction of this track makes its sound and theme quite ironic. One of the most interesting elements of these songs is how they illustrate how various songs on this album fit in nicely with the music of probably six decades and none of the tracks are predictable.

This finally brings me to “The Chorus, Girl.” I include the comma because, in classic Page fashion, the title has a double meaning: the song is about the Chorus, girl and not a girl in a chorus line. This is an amazing and transcendent song with an almost epic and universal appeal, and is about the difficulty in creating art and the danger in trying to be Everything to Everyone whether in art or in life. In some ways, it serves a nice bookend to “Running Out of Ink” as its essentially about having trouble with the creative process, but this song works on a macro-level where “Ink” addressed these issues on a more micro level. It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful song and stands out as probably the best of the album and one of the best of his career. From the first few chords to the “la la la”s at the end, it is a song to behold and treasure.

While it has flaws (namely a couple instances of overproduction and due to being written over a number of years, lacking cohesion), Page One represents some of Page’s best work to date and is an album to behold, treasure, and undoubtedly listen to, over and over and over for years to come. It represents the full evolution of a great artist and packs an emotional punch without feeling too weighty. It also, thankfully, brings us the return of Page’s songwriting partnership with Stephen Duffy. In the early BNL era he co-wrote songs such as “Jane,” “Call and Answer,” and the powerful, but never recorded “Powder Blue”; but in an effort to make the band more member-centric, a decision was made to only record songs from within the band so his songs did not make the cut for the last several BNL albums.  While it’s sad to see the Page/Robertson songwriting duo come to an end, it’s refreshing to see the return of the Duffy partnership.

As I close, I was struck by the similarities (despite being very different artists) of two of the favorites of the Laptop Sessions (and me personally):  Steven Page and Jakob Dylan. Both were quasi-one hit wonders from the 1990s remembered for a super-hit song. Ironically, both their best works came in the years immediately after their peak of popularity (Maroon for Page and  Breach and Red Letter Days for Dylan). Both always fought various preconceptions of being silly or being known for/compared to who their father was; both are not afraid to be self-referential/depreciating in their music (“Hand Me Down” or “Box Set”), both vary through musical genres with ease and unpredictability, and both are two of the finest and fearless artists of their generation.

“Shoe Box” (Barenaked Ladies Cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Tonight, another event in my ongoing tribute entitled, “Steven Page, we hardly knew ye.”  Steven Page leaving Barenaked Ladies has been traumatic for me, musically.  It’s like if John left the Beatles and the band went on without him.  They’d still be a great band with three songwriters, singers, and musicians, but you would always wonder if they’ll ever get back together, etc…

At first, I likened Steven Page leaving Barenaked Ladies after 20 years to Brian Wilson taking a self-inflicted leave from the Beach Boys starting in late 1967.  But, I then realized that Page leaving BNL is much worse in a way, but better in another.

You see, when Brian Wilson stopped making music with the Beach Boys on a regular basis (and being the producer), the other Boys (Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al, and Bruce) hadn’t really been accomplished songwriters yet.  I mean, it took them until 1968 to really put together an album and it definitely sounds like a first effort in many ways.  We were all just lucky to discover five brilliant songwriters behind Brian Wilson.  In many ways, for me, Brian recessing in the Beach Boys contributes to my love of the band because, well, they really became a band after that.  You had five songwriting members that played instruments and sang and went out and played concerts- that incarnation of the Beach Boys is almost unsurpassed, for me.

With Steven Page, he leaves the band with three accomplished songwriters (especially Ed Robertson, with a #1 single in “One Week” under his belt) and some fine singers, to boot.  So, BNL has a bit of a head-start.  In fact, there shouldn’t be too much of a hiccup, other than Page’s recent flurry of depressing songs and over-the-top oparetta vocals.

The thing that makes Page’s absence worse is that, at least for the forseeable future, it’s permanent.  With the Beach Boys, Brian was always still around in some form.  He always contributed at least one song to every album, even if they had to dig it up and force him to complete it.  Fans would always hope for the next Brian Wilson gem and it was comforting to know he was there, readying himself for a possible comeback that never really came.  Of course, I say this like I was there- I wasn’t even alive until after Brian’s amazingly talented brother Dennis died- I’m just speaking from what I’ve read in the past.

So, after that whole explanation, I’m really trying to say that I’m having a hard time getting over the restructuring of my second-all-time favorite band.  Tonight’s video is a little tribute to Steven Page.

“Shoe Box” (which I always thought was “Shoebox”) was a single and had its own EP (with includes a decent song in “Trust Me’) and served as a bridge between the style of the first three albums and the albums to follow (starting with “Stunt”).  The song was also on “Born On A Pirate Ship” in a much more subdued tone, much to that version’s detriment.  The rockin’ single version is my choice, and that’s what I did my video after.  How can you tell them apart?  Well, the album verison just starts off with the instruments and vocals at the same time.  The single goes through the chord progression before Steven Page starts in.

Listen to the words closely on this one- a very interesting message to it.  Also, you may have to look up the words, as it took Chris and I about five years to realize that he’s not saying, “And Rumplestiltskin side my shoe box!” and is in fact saying, “When talk turns to single malts and Stilton and my shoe box!”  Who would’ve thought?

Okay- a long post tonight to make up for last week.  Tomorrow night, I have a BIG announcement about my new album and that just means more work for me.  So, you’ll have to stay tuned until another all-new Original Wednesday comes your way!  Have a great night and I’ll catch you all tomorrow!



The Top Five Rock Artists of the Decade (2000s): NUMBER TWO is Barenaked Ladies

This is the fourth in a five part series dedicated to the top five rock artists of the decade, 2000-2009.  The criteria used to determine this list were: (1) Quality of Music, (2) Quantity of Released Material, (3) Diversity of Media, and (4) Roles of Artists/Band Members.  Look for new posts coming soon!

By Chris Moore:

As we close in on my top pick for best rock artist of the decade, the decisions are getting more and more difficult.  In an attempt to be as unbiased as possible, I initially had last post’s honoree — Jack White — in the #2 spot.  Then I started listening to All in Good Time, which led me back to their albums of last decade.  After one listen to Maroon and Everything to Everyone, I knew that the Barenaked Ladies belonged in a higher position.  It should also be noted that while I do believe I made the right choice for the #1 slot, I have been a BnL fan for much longer, and they hold quite an important place in my heart where music is concerned.

That being said, let’s get this party started!

The Barenaked Ladies have distinguished themselves in all four of the categories I’ve established (see above) for this list.  They are a constantly evolving group of songwriter/musicians and performers, not content to rest easy at what worked for them in the past.  Throughout this, the second full decade of their existence, they have been prolific, releasing new material in every year except 2009.  In addition to typical studio albums every three years, this decade has seen the release of a greatest hits collection, a DVD compilation of their music videos, a holiday-themed album, a musical production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (the one release in their catalog I have yet to set eyes on), their first live DVD, and a children’s album with accompanying book.

Although the decade ended with the oft-noted and overly publicized departure of founding member Steven Page, the remaining four members closed out 2009 by recording a series of eighteen songs, fourteen of which would find their way to 2010’s All in Good Time.

In every way that matters, the Barenaked Ladies have been a creative force to reckon with — and pay attention to — throughout this decade, and despite the criticism of naysayers, they have a very promising future in the next.

POST-STUNT EXPECTATIONS

To say that there was a lot riding on Maroon would be an understatement.

After the breakthrough success of 1998’s Stunt (via the chart-topping “One Week”), BnL’s image and career stood to be reconsidered based on what came next.  While Maroon was successful enough to preclude accusations of one-hit-wonder status, their American audience in particular seemed less and less interested in their work as the years went on.  This much is apparent in the charts, each album topping out further down than the previous one.  (As of this writing, this continues to hold true for All in Good Time, which has peaked at 23; in Canada, on the other hand, it has rightfully marked a comeback, hitting #3 which is the highest chart position for a BnL album there since Maroon.)

But numbers are numbers.  There are so many important aspects of modern life which, contrary to the beliefs and attempts of the powers that be, simply cannot be quantified.

Music is certainly one of those.

Maroon is BnL’s most fully-realized, cohesive, balanced album; it is serious, yet entertaining — fast and slow, loud and quiet.  The first half is populated by equally single-worthy rockers like “Falling for the First Time,” “Too Little Too Late,” and “Pinch Me,” the latter admittedly seeming like a wanna-be follow-up to “One Week.”  The second half of the album stretches out a bit, unwinding hauntingly gorgeous ballads like “Off the Hook” and “Helicopters.”  I haven’t even mentioned some of my favorites — “Baby Seat,” “Go Home,” and “The Humour of the Situation.”  This is a true five star album.

Although the album and singles performed well, it was apparent that they were all received with a bit less interest than Stunt‘s material had been (or, more accurately, its lead-off single).  I, for one, think that it is no coincidence that this was just about the same time that I began to lose interest in popular radio and music television.

BRILLIANCE IN RELATIVE OBSCURITY

To avoid going into painstaking detail about every track that the Barenaked Ladies have released since 2000, I will begin by saying that there is a vast sea of reasons to be interested in and entertained by this band.  As much as I felt people should have been more receptive to Maroon, I was flabbergasted at the apathy that 2003’s Everything to Everyone.  How an album that could so masterfully run the gamut between silly and serious, all the while being consistently brilliant — both lyrically and instrumentally — is beyond me.  This album is composed of some truly killer tracks: sardonic songs like “Celebrity” and “Second Best,” upbeat rockers like “Testing 1, 2, 3” and “Unfinished,” a love song like “Maybe Katie,” the oddly foreboding “War on Drugs,” and the stereotypical BnL knee-slappers “Another Postcard” and “Shopping.”

A lack of public praise never slowed them down, as 2006 saw the recording of 29 new tracks.  Where the band went wrong, in this writer’s opinion, was in deciding to release one album that year and a second album the following year.  What ended up happening was the most outstanding tracks were split between the two discs and, with a lack of cohesion between the two discs, the Are Me/Are Men project was simply not as good as it could have been.  Even Wikipedians are uncertain how to classify these selections in their catalog — either as the seventh or the seventh and eighth albums of BnL’s career.  Still, these releases saw the unveiling of a new era for the band — one of independence from major labels and of stretching their musical sensibilities.  Kevin Hearn’s contributions demonstrated the potential that he presented not only as an instrumentalist and singer, but also as a songwriter.  Jim Creeggan’s beautiful vocals also showed significant promise, even if they were only showed off on a silly number.

These three (or four?) albums would be reason alone to consider BnL one of the best bands of the decade.  And yet they didn’t stop there.  In the past ten years, the band has released some amazing work, not the least of which are their holiday album and children’s album.  The holiday album, Barenaked for the Holidays, brilliantly blended Christmas, Hanukkah, and winter-themed songs in one very characteristic collection (think: “Elf’s Lament,” “Green Christmas,” and others).  The latter, Snacktime!, swung far enough to the silly side of the spectrum to be largely ignored by “serious” music critics.  That being said, anyone who takes a moment to listen to the harmonies and instrumentation will realize that Snacktime! is a masterpiece unto itself, two of the best tracks — “Pollywog in a Bog” and “Louis Loon” — being penned by the unusual collaboration of Creeggan & Ed Robertson.  And it saw the lead vocal debut of Tyler Stewart on the rocking “Allergies,” a song that almost makes me feel cool for having season allergies myself.

AN ARREST, A CRASH, A BREAK, A VOW

Far too much has been written about the moments of crisis and tragedy in the personal lives of the Barenaked Ladies these past few years, so I’ll be especially brief here.  If you’ve kept up with music news, you know that Steven Page was arrested on charges of drug possession, Ed Robertson crashed his plane (fortunately with no serious injuries sustained), and Page’s departure was announced in 2009.  All in all, not a wonderful end to the decade.

That being said, the four remaining members — Robertson, Hearn, Creeggan, and Stewart — have vowed to continue recording and performing as BnL.  How well is that going?

One listen to All in Good Time is all you’ll need to answer that one on your own.