Ethan Recommends: “Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank” by Barenaked Ladies

The world has done a disservice to Barenaked Ladies.

After three decades and over a dozen studio albums, the band is still mainly seen as a one hit wonder whose one hit is a B-list meme — not quite at the heights of “All Star” but close. Recently, a podcast host drove a stake through my heart by casually asserting, “Barenaked Ladies is basically kids’ music.”

What I’ve always most admired about BNL is the varied and bizarre nature of their chosen subjects. Where so many bands churn out maudlin love songs and hollow party anthems, BNL writes about the melancholy life of a window washer, or a man plagued by postcards from an unknown sender each depicting a chimpanzee.

“Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank” is likely the best rebuttal to the idea that BNL is gussied-up kids’ music. It’s a bitter pill with an even uglier hidden center — a razor blade tucked into a lemon. From the stark frenzy of the opening fiddle riff, it’s clear we’re in a realm too dark for pop radio. The song’s images come fast and furious, so at first all that sticks is the chorus: “I’m the farmer. I work in the fields all day.” That’s no metaphor, this is the story of an actual farmer, and while it’s written in the second person, it gradually becomes clear that the subject isn’t the listener, but rather a nameless celebrity (apparently ’70s Canadian singer Anne Murray).

Around the time the uncanny ahhs start jumping across the background, the listener might start noticing references to hatchets and shotguns mixed in with the singer’s lovesick exhortations. And no sooner do you realize that this is the anthem of a fully deranged violent stalker than you get hit with a quick repeat of that frenzied fiddle and then spat out with a mind full of images both pastoral and lurid.

There are worse fates than being a one hit wonder, but it stings when that hit is so misrepresentative of the heights of which a band is capable. So consider this the most dramatic demonstration that BNL isn’t a novelty act for kids, and if you’re swayed, dive back into the catalog. You might even like the kids’ album they put out in 2008 (hey, I never said they were exclusively not kids’ music).

(Song recommendation by Ethan Warren)

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