Remember how it was back in the early '90s, when it seemed like every new rock band on MTV wanted only to brood angrily about the unfairness of life? Did you ever find yourself wanting to yell, "Oh, lighten up?" when some glowering grunge star whined to Kurt Loder about the pressures of rock stardom?
If so, then you're probably a member of the BNL generation -- even if you didn't know it at the time.
BNL, of course, is Barenaked Ladies, a Canadian quintet whose 1992 debut, "Gordon," was ignored by MTV and pretty much everybody else in this country. Their songs seemed terribly unfashionable back then, being snarky, tuneful and beautifully harmonized. But the boys kept at it, slowly and amiably building an audience until the 1998 smash "One Week" helped the group's last album, "Stunt," sell 4 million copies in the United States.
These days, it's grunge that seems unfashionable, while the Ladies are ... well, not hip, exactly, but certainly popular enough to ensure that their fifth album, "Maroon" (Reprise 47814, arriving in stores today), will be a big seller.
As well it should be, because the music on "Maroon" is wonderfully ingratiating. Unlike some pop acts, which hammer hooks with a determination that would make John Henry seem like a slacker, the Ladies tend to underplay the catchy stuff, keeping the vocals slightly subdued and the arrangements lean and uncluttered.
Yet as unassuming as the songs may seem at first, half will sound like hits by the fourth time you hear them. Whether through the melodic momentum of "Humour of the Situation" (the chorus to which may leave some listeners flashing back to the '80s Britpop band the Housemartins) or wittily warped storytelling that drives "Pinch Me," the Ladies not only know how to draw listeners in, but also manage to make them feel utterly at home with the music.
"Pinch Me" is a case in point. A cheerfully rambling sad sack song, its lyrics unfold with casual pacing of a comedic monologue. Granted, the gags tend to be on the silly side -- at one point, Ed Robertson sings "I could hide out under there," which of course is followed by the groaningly juvenile, "I just made you say 'under where?'" -- but for the most part we don't notice, because the music is so deftly delivered.
It isn't just the conversational tone of the singing; BNL also keeps the groove percolating by adding and subtracting bass and drum parts beneath the lean, lazily-repeating acoustic guitar part. Best of all is the chorus, which finds Robertson spitting lyrics dance hall reggae-style as his band mates breathily harmonize "Pinch Me" -- a touch so subtle you may not even notice it the first dozen times you hear the song.
As usual, BNL tends to play up the lighter side of things. "Never Do Anything," for instance, finds Steven Page singing, "Let's play tic-tack-toe ... Thoughts of turning pro / Have crossed my mind" -- as if there were much of a market for professional tic-tack-toe players. These guys can be seriously silly at times.
Still, that doesn't mean the band is inherently frivolous. Indeed, the one song they call "Humour of the Situation" actually puts a slightly dark twist on the old "hey, it's just a joke" excuse, while "Sell, Sell, Sell" actually finds them taking on a serious issue -- how capitalism corrupts the media into trivializing world politics to keep consumers happily spending money. Not that they put it in quite those terms, naturally, but the point remains.
But at bottom, it's not the words but the music that makes Barenaked Ladies so enjoyable. Even if you don't pay attention to the words, it's hard not to be smitten by songs as tunefully ebullient as "Too Little Too Late" or the blissfully infectious "Falling for the First Time," particularly when they're delivered with so much enthusiasm.
Granted, melody doesn't make quite the fashion statement that self importance does, and as such, it's hard to imagine that the BNL generation will have quite as much social impact as the grunge kids did. But which would you rather be, happy or fashionable? If you prefer the former, you're much better off with "Maroon" than black.
Sun score: ***1/2