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Ladies Luck

Five Barenaked Canadians conquer a fickle America with patience

After almost a decade, Barenaked Ladies's slow-and-steady wooing of America finally came to fruition this summer. Upon its June release, Stunt, the Canadian band's fourth full-length CD, debuted at number three -- not bad when you consider its predecessor, Born on a Pirate Ship, was a commercial disappointment. Stunt's success was buoyed by the ubiquitous single, "One Week," which turns an up-tempo, fairly routine relationship song into a freestyle rap that name-checks, among others, Sting, LeAnn Rimes and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

If anything, the fact that "One Week" went to number one in this country proves the Ladies's appeal extends beyond the wise-ass collegiate cult that has embraced the group from the beginning. Their show-stealing displays on the H.O.R.D.E. tour and their sublimely hilarious performance on the MTV Music Video Awards' pre-show broadcast only cemented the Ladies's status as one of the few legitimate breakthrough acts of the year.

Still, in light of the band's tepid track record south of the Canadian border in the past, Stunt's meteoric sales have to come as a shock to a band seemingly resigned to its quirky outsider status here.

"We had no idea," admits singer/guitarist Steven Page. "I thought maybe it would enter in the Top 30 or something. We had built up a pretty amazing fan base. And I thought all those fans would run out and buy the record and it would enter at number 30 and then disappear into oblivion. Now it's been in the Top Ten for 14 weeks; I think that means we've crossed over."

You could say that. Barenaked Ladies -- a band which also includes singer/guitarist Ed Robinson, drummer Tyler Stewart, bassist Jim Creegan and keyboardist Kevin Hearn -- have hung around the Top Ten longer than either Marilyn Manson or the Beastie Boys; as of last week, the album was in the number seven slot. Stunt's sales stamina may be due, in part, to the fact that the Ladies have figured out what it takes to become a priority concern at a major label -- in this case, Reprise.

"We went out and worked pretty hard doing the hand-shaking kind of thing before the record came out," Page says. "I think a lot of times record companies don't have artists who will agree to doing a lot of the glad-handing. But you make a record, and you want people to hear it. We certainly had the sense that this was the record that the record company was going to push for us. We went out and made the best record that we thought we had made -- at least in a long time, if not ever -- and we'd have hated for them to drop the ball on it and say, 'Well, you guys didn't go out and do what we asked you to do.' So we said, 'Fine, okay, we'll go out and shake some hands at some retailers' head offices, if that's what it takes.'

"[So] I just figured that meant [Reprise] wasn't going to give up on it if the thing didn't do that well. We're more used to that side of the equation than [the record company saying], 'This is our big record of the year.' "

Barenaked Ladies's patient formula for success is a glaring exception to the problems with artist development in this country. Most new acts these days are expected to hit the mark right out of the gate, or run the risk of being dropped for lack of immediate results. In the rare case when a band does have dead-on commercial aim, inflated expectations always accompany album number two. God forbid if that release doesn't outsell the debut (more often than not, sophomore releases don't), as it gives a label yet another excuse to send an artist packing.

The Ladies's Steven Page puts the issue into very real perspective by offering a hypothetical scenario of what might have happened to relative slow-starters U2 if they had first come around in 1998: "You think, jeez, October [U2's second album] didn't do so hot. So you dump them after October. Then they get re-signed and put out War on some Internet-only label, and that sells 15,000 copies and that's the end of that."

Don't scoff. A like fate could have easily befallen Barenaked Ladies -- possibly even in their homeland. While the band's first album, 1992's Gordon, sold 900,000 copies in Canada, its second, Maybe You Should Drive, sold only a third of that figure. But with each effort, the band stuck to its guns, alternating potshots and poignancy, hooks and hilarity, shtick and technical skill. Rather than cutting them loose, for whatever reason, Reprise opted to play its hunch.

"For our label -- or [Reprise parent company] Warner Bros., in general -- I think it is a part of their tradition," Page says.

But he's also skeptical of how long even the slightest bit of gambling on long-term potential will be al-lowed to continue at any label. "There are people who are not in the entertainment industry buying [record] companies. They are saying, 'Your bottom line this quarter was so bad that you are going to have to drop eight artists and fire a bunch of people.' Which kind of excludes the people like, the Van Dyke Parks of the world that made Warner Bros. so interesting a label to be on -- or Randy Newman or Ry Cooder or whoever else. They didn't necessarily sell tons of records, but they were part of the fabric of the label."

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