Steven Page doesn't have one of the great voices in rock 'n' roll, but his voice does have a distinctive flat, nasally character that made Barenaked Ladies stand out, for better or worse, on the radio in songs like "One Week" and "Brian Wilson."
For more than 20 years, he shared center stage with co-singer/writer and school friend Ed Robertson in the Canadian group. Then, in 2009, less than a year after Mr. Page was arrested for cocaine possession and in the midst of creative tensions in the band, he abruptly left Barenaked Ladies for a solo career.
Rather than call it quits, Barenaked Ladies chose to soldier on as a four-piece band with the release of a 10th studio album, "All in Good Time," in 2010. Mr. Robertson took the bulk of the leads but shared the mic with keyboardist Kevin Hearn and bassist Jim Creeggan on the album, which stripped BNL of some of its playful, snarky vibe. The band has followed that now with a new album, "Grinning Streak," which was considerably less stressful in the making.
"It was quite daunting and scary at first," Mr. Robertson says of becoming a quartet, "but by the time we headed in for this record, we'd been through it, really, and we found our legs again, and we had hundreds of shows under our belts as a four piece. The last record was about standing up and dusting ourselves off, and this time around we're able to draw on that experience of two decades of playing together and the confidence our band has always had. So I think we just felt like we didn't have anything to prove this time around because we proved it with the last record."
"All in Good Time" came in the wake not only of Mr. Page's departure but Mr. Robertson losing his mother and having a brush with tragedy, crashing his single-engine plane. Going into "Grinning Streak," another thoughtful blend of clever folk-pop, power-pop and New Wave, it was more of a blank slate.
"Actually," Mr. Robertson says, "it was kind of a tough record to write, emotionally, because I'd been through so much turmoil leading up to the last record, I kind of thought, 'Wow, I processed all of that [stuff]. What happens now? Where do I go?' And I wasn't sure what this record was going to be about or where I was going to find the songs. I kind of had 19 or 20 very skeletal ideas kicking around for a long time and I didn't really know what the record was going to be.
"I think I allowed that to freak me out for a little bit early in the writing process, and then I thought, 'You gotta stop overthinking this' and I just went off to my cottage and let the songs kind of finish themselves and not worry too much how they tied together or what they were about. It was a very fulfilling and liberating experience."
He's thrilled with the result and says he actually sent out a rare email blast to his friends telling them how proud he was of the record.
On the road, BNL is still in the process of convincing fans that it can be just as much fun without the playful Page-Robertson dynamic.
"The reaction's been very different in the U.S. and Canada. I think down here we're just a band with a bunch of hits that's known for having a really good live show. That's what we still do. The change has been less marked down here, I think, whereas in Canada we're much more part of the cultural fabric there and more people know the whole story of the band. But the flip side of that is that people in Canada haven't really been in tune with the last decade of success in America. So people are like, 'Oh, I want those guys back from the early '90s,' but we haven't been those guys since the early '90s. America has been more in tune with the last decade of the band."
While Mr. Page has questioned whether BNL should still be playing the songs he sang live, his former partner doesn't find it to be that odd.
"A lot of the songs that Steve sang were songs that I wrote or he and I wrote together, so it's been a really natural transition for me to start singing a song that I wrote in the first place. That's all been quite easy, and Kev's such a great player that he's just picked up whatever instrumental parts Steve was playing."
The new album and tour, which stops at the Carnegie Library Music Hall on Monday, marks the 25th anniversary of a band that's surprised to be there.
"It's a bit insane for me to consider that I've been in a band called Barenaked Ladies for 25 years," Mr. Robertson says. "That means I've been in a band called Barenaked Ladies considerably longer than I wasn't prior to that. Started the band when I was 18 years old. It's a bit mind-boggling to me, but I'm really proud of where we are right now and what we're doing. We talked a lot about what to do for the 25th anniversary and should we do a big boxed-set retrospective thing. Should we do a big anniversary tour? And all of us said, 'Let's just do another record.' And I thought that's the greatest way to celebrate 25 years is to just keep moving forward."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM