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Barenaked Ladies - Born On A Pirate Ship

In the course of the 15 songs on their eclectic, acoustic-based 1992 debut Gordon, Barenaked Ladies achieved a level of schizophrenic brilliance rarely approached in the pop canon. Maybe You Should Drive, the crucial sophomore set, emphasized straightforward, mostly mellower songcraft. That Ben Mink-produced work’s less playful tone and more obscure (though no less varied) themes meant its moments of grandeur eluded those who had expected More Songs About Music And Psychoses as a follow-up. Born On A Pirate Ship offers more upbeat songs that must be heard a few times before their sly meanings emerge but they floor you and suck you in once they do. Fun, enchanting, and deep all at once without even approaching "Thick As A Brick" or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Mental dysfunction still figures prominently, but where the first album veered from listless paranoia ("Brian Wilson") to rubber room giddiness ("Crazy") and the second just accepted depression as a way of life ("Everything Old Is New Again"), this new effort suggests help is available. "This Is Where It Ends" declares, "I believe in the Prozac Nation," though the topic is dismissed or at least denied with the last-verse manifesto "Mental health is overrated." It is songs like this that showcase Steven Page and Ed Robertson as major songwriters; a midtempo ballad innocuous enough the first two times you hear it, it soon reveals itself as an admission of a breakdown with a bridge that tattoos itself on your brain and words so clever but real they could drive Elvis Costello back to school for extra creative writing classes.

Writing solo and as a team, Page and Plant, er, Page and Robertson churn out a dozen dark songs that highlight the always-perfect harmonies, and particularly the rich vocal cords Page will likely damage if he continues to abuse them as he does in concert with performances that stop just short of overwrought. Only upon close inspection is it apparent there’s not even one genuinely happy song aboard this ship. A doom and gloom affair it is not, just don’t be surprised if you’re singing along to these tunes for a while before you figure out the words are from the point of view of a stalker ("Straw Hat And Old Dirty Hank") or a delusional if not outright deranged ex-lover ("The Old Apartment").

A lesser band might begin to lose its own persona; indeed Drive’s most blatant stab at role-playing, "Alternative Girlfriend," fell flat. This time out, the execution surpasses the concept, a crucial key to Gordonian levels of genius. That genius peaks on "I Live With It Every Day," a new offering from Page’s fruitful writing partnership with ex-Lilac Timer Stephen Duffy. It’s a pre-adolescent flashback that—get this—turns dark, with a great, slow middle eight. And "cars dumped in the lake"—is that a Susan Smith reference?

Come to think of it, those musical and pop culture references which have lent hooks to a number of the Ladies’ tunes are getting subtler, and anyway musical appropriations like those of The Housemartins, Johnny Rivers, and The Vince Guaraldi Trio on the debut probably would seem old hat now. If nothing else, there are nods to those bookends of twentieth century culture, The Beatles and Charo.

There’s still piano in producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda’s mix, though without keyboardist Andrew Creeggan, who quit during the last tour, there is less of it. Meanwhile brother/bassist Jim Creeggan contributes his first two songs to the group’s body of work, and these late-album entries, particularly "Spider In My Room" with its fourth-rate They Might Be Giants-on-Ritalin sound, cause the last third of the album to sag a bit.

On disc four years ago and in concert to this day, Barenaked Ladies are a unique band of pirates who burden you with a lifetime of confessions, clock you on the head with a hammer, then tell you a knock-knock joke. If that’s no longer the way they conduct themselves in the studio, it is far more than a consolation to "settle" for a collection of challenging pop bathed in harmony and musical virtuosity. It’s enough to make ya wanna tell most other bands to take a long walk off a short pier.