The glory of exposure

Toronto pop-rockers Barenaked Ladies might be the least likely candidates to participate in this year's HORDE Festival. Then again, the 1997 version of the roving summer music festival, organized by Blues Traveler and dominated by neo-hippie bands prone to sprawling jams, featured performances by Beck and Ben Folds Five.;Barenaked Ladies, whose 1991 single "Be My Yoko Ono" first earned the group attention beyond Canadian borders, got on board HORDE at the suggestion of Blues Traveler after the two groups shared a bill in Memphis. But the neo-hippie scene hasn't played a substantial role in the Barenaked Ladies' success.

"I'm kind of curious to see what happens," says guitarist and vocalist Steven Page. "Our audience is a little more modern-rock oriented than that. That kind of scene, I really know nothing about."

Anyone who saw them last December at UCF Arena, where they opened for Sarah McLachlan, knows that the band also relies on improvisation, with plenty of sly humor and catchy song hooks. But Page says the band's approach to jamming is different than Blues Traveler's. "We're pretty focused on making the arrangements of the songs consistent and tight and polished. It's the stuff that goes on in between that makes the show. We don't tend to do a lot of harmonica solos."

Early on, Page, guitarist Ed Robertson, bassist Jim Creeggan, drummer Tyler Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Hearn, gained reputations as accomplished musicians. They attracted audiences via their over-the-top performances on albums such as "Gordon" (1992) and "Maybe You Should Drive" (1994). "Born on a Pirate Ship" (1996) included the group's first American top-40 hit, "The Old Apartment."

The glories of the group's stage show were captured on "Rock Spectacle," the 1996 album recorded at theaters in Montreal and Chicago. The disc went gold in 1997 and led to appearances on "Beverly Hills 90210," Conan O'Brien's New Year's Eve show and, earlier this year, on Letterman.

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"Definitely the live show is one of our greatest strengths," says Stewart. "A lot of ritual sacrifice and a lot of full-frontal nudity. People like to be grossed out and turned on. We try to include them in the whole performance."

Barenaked Ladies are likely to march back up the charts with "Stunt," their fourth studio album, due out July 7. The disc offers the sound of a band far more confident in their writing and playing than on earlier releases. "One Week," the first single, comes as sort of a shock. The band, who contributed a cover of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" to the "Coneheads" soundtrack, turns in a mix of hip-hop rhythms and silly rhymes.

"The verses are based on the way Ed does his freestyle rapping during the show," Page explains. "It's very much in the spirit of what we do live, but we've never really done in the studio."

"Stunt," mostly co-written by Page and Robertson, is dominated by acoustically flavored pop gems. The new compositions are solidly rooted in a school of songwriting that owes much to the Beatles, Elvis Costello and Squeeze. Page also points to the Kinks, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Violent Femmes and, recently, Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman as major influences. A rather refreshing dark streak runs through "I'll Be That Girl," "Alcohol" and "Call and Answer," tunes the singer co-wrote with longtime friend and collaborator Stephen Duffy.

"I think simply because there's a little bit of hype surrounding this record, there will always be people who will refer to it as the sell-out record," says Page. "Personally, I think it's our strongest. ... It's more polished, and the songs and the personality of the group come through pretty strongly."

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