REVIEW: Ladies & Gentlemen – Barenaked Ladies and The Persuasions
Barenaked Ladies have pulled off a remarkable collaboration.
Ladies & Gentlemen: Barenaked Ladies and The Persuasions was given an early release via Sessions X this week. The Get Barenaked review is based on that footage (available here) – the album is out on CD and vinyl on April 14th.
After 28 years of being a band, to retain such enthusiasm for creativity is admirable; and to stretch and challenge a collective approach to musicality and arrangement is further testament to the band’s artistic integrity. When the collaborators happen to be a cappella legends The Persuasions, it’s hardly a surprise that the resulting LP is a fine achievement: a finessed, classy collection of reworked hits.
The Persuasions [L to R: Cliff Dawson, Raymond Sanders, James Hayes, Dave Revels, Jayotis Washington, Samuel White], are veterans of the music scene. Formed in 1962, they’ve enjoyed an illustrious career and worked alongside some of the biggest, most respected names in music; from Frank Zappa, to Ray Charles, to Lou Reed.
It was in fact at Reed’s memorial in 2013 where Revels struck up a friendship with multi-instrumentalist Lady Kevin Hearn – who had been Reed’s band leader and close friend for a number of years before his passing. Incidentally, Hearn’s first taste of Revels’ band was via the 2000 LP Frankly a Cappella, The Persuasions’ unique take on Zappa’s hits.
Sharing a love for harmony and performance, the two acts shared a stage in New York City in summer 2016, before floating the idea to create a record together. Over two days in Toronto in late October 2016, Gavin Brown oversaw the sessions – with vocal arrangements crafted by The Persuasions and music by BNL.
Kicking off proceedings, the groups excel on “Narrow Streets“. A far cry from its original structure and feel, it’s an early highlight of the session – this fresh arrangement matches, if not surpasses, the original recording. After a superb, swinging acapella intro, various layers are gradually and intricately introduced. Robertson skilfully assumes bass duties, allowing Creeggan to have free rein on what has to be one of his best vocal deliveries to date.
While “Gonna Walk” doesn’t stray too far from its original album treatment (listen out for James Hayes’ brilliant ‘answer’ to the final chorus’ ‘call’), Hearn’s “Don’t Shuffle Me Back” – originally found on his 2011 solo offering Cloud Maintenance – carries an added oomph and is a stellar inclusion. This collaboration is clearly a thrill for Hearn, and his new pals are only too happy to oblige: Revels reveals “With Barenaked Ladies it felt like a beautiful chemical reaction. The music is passionate, and that’s why we identify with it, so that’s why it was a natural union”.
Another standout of the session can be found next in BNL’s 1996 radio hit “Old Apartment“, where Cliff Dawson sings lead. This, apparently, wasn’t set to be the case. Creeggan recalls: “I think Ed was expecting to sing, and Cliff took the line – and we all just went ‘whoa!'”
This is “Old Apartment” like you’ve never heard it before; it sounds fresher and more soulful than ever. Rather than a carbon copy of Steven Page’s original delivery, or indeed Robertson’s subsequent take, Dawson puts a unique stamp on the fan favourite. Indeed, it sounds so refined that Robertson concedes; “I’m never singing that one again – that’s Cliff’s song now!” Hearn adds that, in reworking the songs with The Persuasions, hearing a new take on the BNL classics has been a (welcome) “slap in the face”.
“Keepin’ It Real” follows, and packs a real punch – a simplistic yet mesmerising chant underpins the song while Robertson and Hayes share lead vocal duties.
Despite the fun and games, the acts are able to tone it down a notch to great effect too: The chorus of the exquisite “When I Fall” further down the track listing is stunning – haunting, even – and on “For You“, Revels compliments Robertson’s vocals wonderfully in a soaring chorus which is juxtaposed with a lovely, lilting hummed melody throughout the verses. Stewart commented: “Everything that comes out of their mouths is dripping with soul – you can’t help but absorb some of that when you’re in the room playing. Just to hear them singing our words – I burst into tears a couple of times”.
On “Some Fantastic“, lead vocal duty is delightfully shared between Robertson and Revels; and – speaking of soul – the other non-BNL song recorded is “Good Times“; an uplifting Perusasions-original ditty with a distinctive BNL twist courtesy of a signature Robertson rap.
Completing a trio of songs selected from 2013’s Grinning Streak, “Odds Are” gets the Persuasions spin, with the ensemble adding depth to the already-joyful chorus, whilst “Sound of Your Voice” takes a form not dissimilar to BNL’s popular live ‘barbershop’-style format of recent years.
The Persuasions invent a joyful introduction for “Maybe Katie” – followed by their fun interpretation of the song’s guitar solo a couple of minutes later. A few stray lyrics can be forgiven as this is another fine reworking, with Hearn picking up the banjo and Jim, who co-penned the song, delivering a few lines as lead.
Heading into the final stretch, the final three tracks contain most of the band’s infamous tongue-twisters. “One Week” is stripped back to a guitar-and-vocals-only delivery with no need for any bells and whistles. “Four Seconds“, another fast-paced vocal delivery, is also stripped of the original recording’s electronic wizardry leaving more room for The Persuasions’ input. Finally, the collective remarkably all simultaneously pull of the “she sells sea shells” tongue-twister on “I Can Sing” – details like this are all the more impressive considering the band apparently only had a few hours’ rehearsal for this session.
The prolific collective mustered 15 full recordings and interestingly, of the 13 Ladies tracks recorded, seven are taken from the more recent four-piece outputs (All in Good Time, Grinning Streak and Silverball). Fans may well hope a further collaboration will one day be on the cards, where earlier cuts (specifically from Gordon, where harmonies are so prominent) can be explored. The brilliance of this collection will certainly leave fans wanting more.
Showcasing their ever-present sense of fun, these reworkings of BNL classics bring new joy to a stellar back catalogue. While Stewart jokes “I really think that singing keeps you young, because those guys are quite a bit older than us – and we ain’t no spring chickens!”, he tellingly reflects on this project’s standing in the band’s long career: “Top 3 most fun things I’ve ever done in 26 years of the band!”
What do you think?
- What are your highlights from the collection? Send in your own reviews to email@example.com!
Get Barenaked will be live-tweeting the record on release day – join in at 6pm EST / 10pm GMT on 14th April.