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Barenaked Ladies - Stunt

Not quite a sell-out, yet not quite up to the level of their previous work either, Stunt may be just that. The fourth studio record from this Canadian quintet is easily their weakest effort yet. Still, the standard set by Barenaked Ladies couldnít be higher, as theyíve provided some of the decadeís most inspired pop moments on record and some of the most hilariously brilliant shows ever to grace a stage. And the inaccountability of public taste being what it is, it should be no surprise, then, that this album broke the field wide open for them in the U.S.

And why not? In the midst of all the Sublimes, Sugar Rays, and even Bone Thugs -N- Harmonies, the nation was ready in 1998 to hear some Canuck going off about LeAnn Rimes and "Chickety China, the Chinese chicken" in the middle of what might be the most deceptively bouncy song about a loversí quarrel ever to reach #1 on the Hot 100. The lead track and single "One Week" exploded all over the place the moment it hit radio in June, setting up Stunt for a sweet #3 debut on the Billboard 200 and a rave reception on the H.O.R.D.E. tour, where their appeal with the neo-hippie crowd widened further, despite the fact that their music owes more of a debt to the likes of The Housemartins, Violent Femmes, and XTC than Phish or Blues Traveller. It all makes for a success story not unlike that of The Dave Matthews Band, whose years of persistent touring along with the surprising faith of a record label hoping to recoup its investment actually paid off in the long run. I mean, who knew?

So the production and the choice of single were calculated; arenít they always? Note for the record, though, that even in a period when the bandís label may be unduly influencing their artistic decisions, they are staying true to themselves. The "One Week" rap certainly grows out of the spontaneous toasting singer Ed Robertson has been busting on stage all decade long. Though a live entertainment value like no other in rock and rollóheavy on the hysterical banter, as well as the great pop hooksóthe band has always managed to harness plenty of creativity on its records as well. With "One Week," they bring more of their live show into their studio work, and the result is less transcendent than usual.

This bakerís dozen of new tunes by Robertson, fellow lead singer Steven Page, and British pop songwriter extraordinaire Stephen Duffy (known in pop circles for his work with The Lilac Time, and not a member of the Ladies) contains one achingly beautiful ballad of reconciliation that never would have fit in on the City Of Angels soundtrack ("Call And Answer") along with many acoustic-flavored cheap pop thrills ("Some Fantastic," "Iíll Be That Girl"). A more straightforward rocker like follow-up single "Itís All Been Done" comes closer to filler territory. As always, bright harmonies make the deceptively dark lyrics frighteningly singable, and this band mixes the profound and the mundane better than just about anyone. In the end, despite the carnival theme, it does rise above the level of gimmickry. For now, itíll do. Hereís hoping that next time, though, theyíll be past the need to pull stunts and more finely focus the irreverent genius that makes them a genuinely great band.