Barenaked Ladies at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Monday and Tuesday (December 20 and 21), 8 pm. $39.50-$49.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
Somehow, the notion of the Barenaked Ladies recording the same tired old Christmas tunes that everyone else has sung a million times before seems like a bad idea. They felt the same way. So instead of releasing yet another album of painfully schlocky seasonal tunes, they called up a couple of pals to join in their characteristically irreverent takes on a few standards and filled up the balance of Barenaked For The Holidays(Desperation/Nettwerk) with their own well-crafted compositions that aren't quite as upbeat and cheery as might be expected from the Canuck cut-ups.
Along with the bah-humbug gripe of Green Christmas, which they wrote as a favour to Ladies fan Ron Howard for his remake of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, there's Kevin Hearn's forlorn Christmastime (Oh Yeah) and Ed Robertson's surprisingly heavy holiday breakup narrative Footprints, which could be a bummer-Christmas classic for years to come.
"I'm a Christmas music junkie - the weirder the better - and there are a lot of great country Christmas records by artists like Buck Owens and Willie Nelson," says Robertson from a tour stop in Boston. "Those records were probably the inspiration for songs like Footprints and Green Christmas.
"Footprints is written from the perspective of a guy looking through the window at the family he just abandoned. He's walking beside his wife, pretending they're together to keep up appearances. As a songwriter, what interests me about the holidays is that although it's a time of overt cheeriness, behind the smiling faces it can also be a time of intense sadness."
That doesn't mean Barenaked For The Holidays is without its lighter moments. Hearn adds some levity with his nutty Lowrey-organ-backed runs at O Holy Night and Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime, which comes off less like a fond homage than a straight-up dis. And then there's the goofy Deck The Stills romp where they replace the lyrics of Deck The Halls with "Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young."
More entertaining for the band, perhaps, than for the listener, but apparently it could've been worse.
"That's a bus game we play all the time where we substitute the names 'Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young' for the words to any song and then repeat them over and over again until it loops back around to where Crosby ends up on the one again. The version on the album ends with 'Crosby,' but if we'd done it right the thing would've gone on much longer."
Apart from the oddly abrupt ending of their backstage medley of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and We Three Kings in which Sarah McLachlan is hilariously cut off in mid-stanza (a post-production choice to avoid a muffed ending), one of the mysteries is why the Ladies even bothered trying to update Band-Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? in light of the recent remake by Band-Aid 20 involving Coldplay's Chris Martin, Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Robbie Williams, Dido and others.
"We didn't know," groans Robertson. "We'd been doing the song live for a long time, and it always gets a great reaction. When we thought of recording it for this new album, which was back in May, we had no idea they were planning to remake it in England.
"It's sort of relegated our version to the irrelevant pile, hasn't it? We did some shows there recently, but we didn't play it. We didn't even mention it in interviews."
Lately, Robertson has had a lot of other stuff to talk about, namely the surprise radio success of the song I Forgot To Mention - a five-year-old collaboration with million-selling 70s pop icon Andy Kim of Rock Me Gently fame - and writing songs for the Stratford Festival's 2005 production of Shakespeare's As You Like It.
So whatever happened to that Barenaked Ladies television series for Fox?
"It's taking shape, although I can't really say what kind of shape. It's going to be sort of a hybrid sitcom and variety show with some celebrities doing things you wouldn't expect. We're actually taking a second swing at it right now. The initial plan was to tape something in November, but we looked over the script and went, 'Umm... this isn't a good show.'
"We've been collaborating with a new set of writers for about a month, and yesterday the first script arrived with the ideas we'd discussed. I have to say it's very encouraging that we were laughing out loud while reading it."