Although a member of the Barenaked Ladies for the past 16 years, Kevin Hearn has a long history of popping up in different combos, serving as the leader of Lou Reed’s touring group one minute and recording with Rheostatics the next. On “Cloud Maintenance,” he returns to the solo career he’s been nurturing since 1997.
“Cloud Maintenance” is a good-natured folk-pop album, slower in places than most Barenaked Ladies records but not too far removed from that band’s lighthearted, hook-filled sound. Mr. Hearn is clearly the ringleader here, with most of the songs revolving around his piano chords and wistful vocals, but he also relies on a revolving door of A-list players to help shape the sound. Tony “Thunder” Smith, Mr. Reed’s drummer, plays on several songs, and Garth Hudson, former keyboardist for the Band, handles piano duties on “The House of Invention.”
The collaborative spirit serves Mr. Hearn well. He’s always been more of a team player than a star, remaining behind the keyboard for much of the Barenaked Ladies‘ career and only assuming a larger role in recent years, after Steven Page’s departure left the band in need of another person to share vocal duties. He’s generous with the spotlight as a result, beefing up his melodies with harmonies from other singers - including doo-wop veteran Arnold Robinson, who sang bass for the Platters - and soliciting other contributions from members of Thinbuckle, another one of his side projects.
Sometimes, it feels as though Mr. Hearn and company are in danger of taking their jokes too far. “When I’m feeling blue, I pick up a shoe, pretend it’s a telephone and that I’m talking to you,” goes a line in the third song. “Monsters Anonymous,” which ends the album on an equally slapstick note, tells the story of several creatures - a dinosaur, a Minotaur, a Cyclops, Frankenstein - who’ve come to air their grievances at a group therapy session.
“Cloud Maintenance” usually falls on the right side of the comedy-pop divide, though, taking its cues from both genres while making sure to balance the hammed-up camp with strong pop hooks. Those who already listen to the Barenaked Ladies will gravitate toward these brainy, half-serious songs more readily than most, but you can’t blame Mr. Hearn for taking aim at the audience he knows best.
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