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NUDES ASCENDING A STAIRCASE : Canada's Barenaked Ladies Are Wacky, Talented and Happily on the Rise

August 26, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Anyone who would go browsing in a record store and emerge with a haul that included new albums by Leonard Cohen (folk) and the Sundays (college rock) and old ones by War (funk) and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (jazz vocals) has musical tastes of greater than usual breadth.

It wasn't just anyone who had that shopping experience. It was Stephen Page--the bulky sweet-voiced singer of the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies. At least that's what he reported in an interview last year on the day of his CD-buying binge.

Page and his four band-mates aren't the sorts to let their omnivorous interests end with their record collections. Barenaked Ladies' 1992 debut album, "Gordon," tastily incorporated all of the above stylistic strains.

It also showed wide emotional range, as the band waxed wistful about the trials of post-adolescent romance, or put tongue in cheek for humorous-unto-silly songs that were big on rock-culture references. Gonzo over a girl, Page asks her to "Be My Yoko Ono." Cast off and depressed, he finds himself "lying in bed, just like Brian Wilson did." Daydreaming of love and riches, he muses, "If I had a million dollars, I would buy you some art (a Picasso or a Garfunkel)."

It's the whimsical side that comes to the fore in live shows.

Opening at Bogart's for Sire label-mates Throwing Muses a year ago, Barenaked Ladies had about as much fun as you'll ever see a band have on stage--something refreshing in an age of alternative bands that tend to be studiously grim at best and calculatingly hostile at worst. They finished with a romping, if politically meaningless version of the Public Enemy rap "Fight the Power."

In Canada, all of this has gone over like hockey pucks. Barenaked Ladies started five years ago in Scarborough, Ontario, as a duo, with Page joined by an old schoolmate, Ed Robertson, on guitar. They soon recruited drummer Tyler Stewart and brothers Jim (bass) and Andy (piano) Creeggan. They put out a self-produced cassette, began barnstorm ing around Canada and attracted enough of a following to land the tape in the national Top 20.

It helped when city officials in Toronto banned the band from playing at a municipal New Year's Eve festival, claiming its purely silly name was sexist.

The flap generated loads of Canadian media exposure for Barenaked Ladies, whose songs and promotional imagery are devoid of sexist content. When "Gordon" appeared last year, the band had a huge hit by Canadian standards, selling more than 400,000 copies.

The band has had a slower road to success in the United States, but after opening slot appearances locally with Throwing Muses and John Wesley Harding in '92, Barenaked Ladies appears to be on the rise: It arrives at the Coach House on Saturday, as a headliner with the kind of resources that could win it further converts.

So might the opening band, Trip the Spring. Although it takes a more serious, mystical-philosophical slant, this young Fullerton band, influenced by Jethro Tull and other early-'70s folk-rock sources, has impressed with appealing harmonies and strong ensemble playing.

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