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(Nettwerk 30269 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/26/2002)
The dynamics of being in a band are such that frequently one or more members may feel restricted enough that he leaves the group to pursue his own projects. More often than not, those solo albums turn out to be a lot less successful commercially than the band, but the opposite has also been true. Less frequent is the case of members of a reasonably successful group undertaking side projects without leaving the band. These can range from self-indulgent to fascinating. Perhaps even less frequent is an ongoing side project by group members that co-exists with the band over a period of time.
This week we have fine example of the latter, the fourth album by a side-project by members of one of Canada's most acclaimed current bands, Barenaked Ladies. It's a delightful recording by The Brothers Creeggan called Sleepyhead.
Jim and Andy Creeggan were founders of the creative, witty and musically astute Barenaked Ladies, appearing together on their superb US debut release Gordon. But the siblings had been making music together since their teens, creating some homemade recordings while still in high school. In 1992, during a tour with the Barenaked Ladies, the Creeggans tried doing some gigs together, informally at first, but eventually leading to an album together in 1993. Andy left Barenaked Ladies in 1995 to take a break from the rigors of the pop music world and pursue more formal musical studies, He took an increasing interest in World Music and ethnic styles and also pursued instrumental compositions through yet another ongoing project called Andiwork. The first Brothers Creeggan album was described as veering from music influenced by minimalist orchestral composers like Steve Reich to the Sex Pistols.
By the Creeggans' third album together in 2000, they were joined by a more-or-less permanent non-sibling member, drummer-percussionist Ian McLauchlan. The CD's title Trunks was named in part from the fact that McLauchlan is also an avid tree-climber.
Now the Brothers Creeggan, with McLauchlan, are out with Sleepyhead, a CD whose title hints at the laid-back acoustic sound of the record. As Barenaked Ladies have been moving more toward mainstream pop, this CD brings out some of the contemplative facets of the group from their earlier days. The instrumentation on Sleepyhead is generally sparse, and almost entirely acoustic, including upright bass, but the songs are full of wonderfully diverse influences, from bossa nova to folk ballads to music that was literally used as a lullaby for someone who was very ill. The album is quite deceptive in its subtlety, while keeping an informal, friendly sound that has always been an undercurrent in the Barenaked Ladies' music.
The two Creeggan Brothers and McLauchlan provide almost all of the instrumentation on the CD, with some overdubbing to fill things out. But there are a couple of guest appearances, including another Barenaked Lady, Ed Robertson, and singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer doing some backing vocals.
The CD opens with an attractive song described as both a love song and a good-bye song. You Will Be Adored is typical of the informal living-room kind of sound of the CD. <<>>
The track with the guest appearances is Anna on the Moon, one of my favorites for its contemplative sound and allegorical lyrics considering what is home. <<>>
Showing a bit of jazz and bossa-nova influence is Coastline with its lyrics partially in French. <<>>
One of the more musically quirky tracks is Ali Babba's, which turns out to be about the brothers' favorite falafel shop in Toronto. The CD has occasional incursions into unexpected instrumentation. This track features Andy, who played percussion in a youth orchestra in his earlier days, on vibes, while Jim bows his bass. <<>>
About the most upbeat track is Rocking Chair which, with its out-of-tune piano and one of the few instances of electric guitar, implies rockabilly, while considering the more weighty issue of the passage of time. <<>>
The CD's title comes into play on several songs on its latter portion, with a dreamlike sound and lyrical direction. Sometimes is another highlight of the CD with its jazzy sound, convoluted rhythm, and textures reminiscent of the late Nick Drake. <<>>
Even jazzier, complete with vibes, is Long and Slow on which the Creeggans generally drop any pretenses of being light pop artists, and really create a sophisticated piece, both musically and lyrically. <<>>
That segues into Bye Song, written about the death of Andy's mother-in-law. The younger Creeggan said that he would play the guitar softly for her as she slept in her illness, and Andy said that the song's riff evolved that way, being one of the few things that would fit in that situation. Later, the lyrics were written about the experience of loss. <<>>
The CD ends with what sounds like an old-fashioned ballad, Will You Come Back to Me, which is the entire set of lyrics. It's another laid-back piece that also serves as a nice epilogue. <<>>
Sleepyhead, the new fourth CD by the Brothers Creeggan is a thoroughly enjoyable recording that is a reminder of the creativity that has been part of Barenaked Ladies from the beginning. But with the band getting more toward mainstream pop, this CD is a nice departure, and its combination of informality and general sibling closeness gives this CD very inviting atmosphere. Add the deceptive musical sophistication that lies beneath the laid-back ambience, and the pleasingly understated acoustic instrumentation, and the result is an album that a real gem -- not a record to hit you on your head, but one that draws you in like a good book enjoyed in a comfortable easy chair.
Our grade for sonic quality comes close to an "A." The recording captures well the warm informal feel, and lack of effects is appreciated, the dynamic range is a bit better than many rock CDs, but still unnecessarily compressed for loudness.
Side projects by band members of existing groups have had a mixed history, but the Brothers Creeggan have no apologies to make for their CD. Given the state of the commercial record business, music like this would never have been released on a widely-distributed label if it had not been members of a well-known group, nevertheless, this is a CD that is a one of the month's best irrespective of the members' other affiliations.
(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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