It took a long time for Barenaked Ladies’ co-frontman Steven Page’s collaboration with mentor and friend Stephen Duffy to see light of day. Page jokingly dubbed the sessions The Vanity Project. The name stuck and an effort five years in the making was released in June 2005.
Themes on the album range from the introspective to the political. He must have been in a hurry to express his thoughts on the state of the world. The first song, “Hit and Run” has no intro and its first words are “Protest song.” Page pulls no punches on the propulsive opener:
“hit and run
everybody knows who won
if you’re the chosen son
you don’t even need a gun”
“Wilted Rose,” the album’s second track, continues the political theme with the opening line “I almost cried on the day my country died.” Some critics compare this song to early R.E.M. (“In the Car” from BNL’s Stunt sounds more R.E.M.-like than “Wilted Rose). Acoustic guitar and harmonica lay the foundation for a chorus of layered Page vocal harmonies. If “Hit and Run” was a song of protest “Wilted Rose” is defeat and disappointment (“Wilted Rose” is the first single in Page’s native Canada).
The disappointment of “Wilted Rose” is carried forward on “These Wasted Words” but this time on a personal level rather than political. The chorus features more layers of Page’s powerful voice. “These Wasted Words” is perhaps Page’s best vocal on the album and is also one of the disc’s highlights.
“So. Cal” is the only song on the album Page wrote without the help of Duffy and it sounds very similar to the BNL track “Sell, Sell, Sell” (from Maroon). US first single “That’s All That’s All” is a slower song with Page’s unmistakable voice backed by acoustic guitars and synth percussion. The song is pleasant but lazy and is probably ill suited for radio.
The politics of the first two songs and the introspection of “These Wasted Words” are merged on the standout track “Everything’s the Same” (and perhaps should have been sequenced there). The verses are filled with resentment (“Easy to bow to the flag on the wall/I pledge my allegiance to nothing at all”) but the song’s observer seems to be indifferent:
“And on the news they said the world had changed
But you and I are staying home again
And even though we’re scared
Everything’s the same”
Gentle, acoustic “Glitterbug” is the kind of thing Page should do more often. He has, at times, a thunderous voice and has famously unleashed it with full force (BNL’s “Break Your Heart,” for example). Here he takes a more understated vocal approach to lovely effect. “Thank You for Sharing” is a more clever (and more listenable) update of Mötley Crüe’s “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)” (although the Crüe’s song title is better). Dylan’s “It’s All Right (Don’t Think Twice”) might be a better frame of reference. The song’s protagonist is trying to be fair about the end of an ill-advised relationship but some zingers aimed at the departing lover reveal lingering bitterness.
There are no bad moments on TVP but not every song works as well as “Everything’s the Same” or “These Wasted Words.” “Baby Loves the Radio” is not Page’s best chorus (in fact, it is a little bit terrible) and “So Young So Wrong So Long” lacks a real hook.
This project is not a major departure from anything he has done with Barenaked Ladies. Some of the politically-charged songs (“Hit and Run,” “Wilted Rose”) would have sounded at home on BNL’s most recent album Everything to Everyone. Other songs (“These Wasted Words,” “So. Cal”) would have sounded at home on previous albums. The music of TVP illuminates Page’s contributions to his band’s sound, which is something he had in mind.
“I think there are a lot of people who would like Barenaked Ladies music, but don’t realize that they would,” Page told Rolling Stone. “Maybe our radio hits or the image of the band have marred their view of what we really are about. The biggest success I could hope for with this record is that it might bring in some of those people.”
How Shakespearean. Would a “Wilted Rose” by any other name sound as sweet? TVP comes pretty damned close. Fans of Barenaked Ladies might miss some of the humor and the contributions of other members of the band when listening to this (BNL keyboardist Kevin Hearn is the only band member featured on the disc) but The Vanity Project should more than tide them over until the next BNL disc.
GRADE = B
Review Notes: I have done this on a couple of the other albums I have reviewed. I cannot give you my first impression of the songs because I listened to the entire album the first time without taking any notes.
What follows are my notes on subsequent listens to the album in preparation for the larger review above. You might find these enlightening or helpful. You might find them a horrendous bore. Feel free to disagree with my hackneyed attempts at song interpretation. I should warn you: I am usually wrong when I try to decode lyrics anyway.
- Hit and Run: Song opens without an introduction – music and lyrics start immediately but are electronically muted for the first 45 seconds before giving way to the big chorus. Political overtones? Here’s the chorus:
“hit and run
everybody knows who won
if you’re the chosen son
you don’t even need a gun”
“Hit and Run” would have fit well on the politically-charged Everything to Everyone lyrically and musically. The song gathers momentum when it comes out of the middle section and the chorus repeats twice.
- Wilted Rose: The song opens with some nice harmonica. The chorus features several layers of Page harmony vocals. This song, too, seems to have some political overtones. “Wilted Rose” comes across as more personal in its politics and delivery than “Hit and Run.” “Hit and Run” sounds a call for protest. “Wilted Rose” is the aftermath of the defeat.
- These Wasted Words: “These Wasted Words” is like a cousin of “Wilted Rose” musically and lyrically. This song also deals with disappointment and broken dreams but this time on a personal level rather than a political level. Page sounds more engaged on “These Wasted Words” than any song to this point of the album. The track sequencing to this point creates a great narrative.
- So. Cal: This reminds me a little bit of “Sell, Sell, Sell” from BNL’s Maroon with some SoCal harmonies in the background. Happy packaging for a song that does not sound so happy.
- That’s All, That’s All: Echo guitars and synth percussion create an ambient background for another of Page’s songs of disappointment and disillusionment. This one sounds like post-Bill Berry R.E.M. Page seems to enjoy being able to harmonize with himself. He does not get that chance often with BNL because there is no need – Ed, Jim, Kevin, and Tyler are all capable singers.
- Everything’s the Same: “Everything’s the Same” is not a hard rock song by any stretch but does accentuate electric guitar in places more than previous songs. Electric guitar flourishes compete with Page’s repetition of the song’s title on the (perhaps a little overly long) rideout.
There are allusions to politics/current events in a general sense but only as a backdrop to the dynamics of a relationship. Interesting spin this time: “Hit and Run” was protest and “Wilted Rose” was disappointed. “Eveything’s the Same” seems to suggest that even with doom knocking at the door, “Everything’s the Same.”
This song would have fit nicely with the opening songs. It does not seem out of place where it is but might have fit even better closer to the beginning.
- Glitterbug: Bright production and reassuring lyrics. The song is affecting and infectious almost immediately. The song seems a little too short on the heels of the much longer “Everything’s the Same” but it is still charming. I wonder what the song would have sounded like if the synths were replaced by strings…
- Thank You for Sharing: Return of the harmonica! Just what anyone would want to hear:
thank you for sharing your nightmares with me
thank you for choosing to leave peacefully
thank you for losing your last shred of dignity
That’s nearly as good as Ben Folds Five’s “Song for the Dumped” and much better than Ugly Kid Joe’s “Everything About You” in the breakup department.
- Baby Loves the Radio:”R-A-D-I-O, baby loves the radio” will not go down in history as the greatest chorus in the history of music. Two chords.
I love to hear that song even though there’s only one on the radio
Raise your hand if you have ever felt that way.
- By the Roadside: This is not the kind of song that will get a lot of play on the r-a-d-i-o. A woman dead on the side of the road. Hard not to think of BNL’s “Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel” but “By the Roadside” has a little twist at the end.
- So Young So Wrong So Long: An 80s, jangly vibe.
- Here Today and Yesterday: Maybe the title prejudiced me but I get a strong Beatles-esque vibe from this song.