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"Fly" Boys

When Sugar Ray's chart-hogging single, "Fly," was first completed in rough-draft form during rehearsals in New York City, the band received a taste of things to come. A girl they'd met happened to be in the studio when the band played through a loose version of "Fly." From that point on -- until Sugar Ray left New York to head back to their Southern California home -- she couldn't stop singing its catchy chorus. Over and over she'd repeat it, often at the most inopportune times.

Since then, lots of other people have been singing the same tune -- and Sugar Ray's career has made a sharp turn upward. The group's 1995 debut, Lemonade and Brownies, did little to put them on the map. The CD met lukewarm reviews and only modest sales, though the quirky quintet -- bassist Murphy Karges, drummer Stan Frazier, singer Mark McGrath, guitarist Rodney Sheppard and Craig "DJ Homicide" Bullock -- put in close to two years of touring to support it.

"Fly," on the other hand, immediately generated a buzz, soaring up the charts and propelling the group's second CD, Floored, past 500,000 in sales. Sugar Ray is currently selling out shows of 1,000 and more, and its members are still struggling to come to terms with their speedy reversal of fortune. Bullock reportedly cried when he received his gold record; Frazier broke down soon after.

Sugar Ray's success, however, hasn't merely been a matter of luck and good timing. In the two years since the release of Lemonade and Brownies, the band has matured considerably, and they give pop-oriented Floored producer David Kahne (the Bangles, Wire Train, Fishbone) much of the credit for their move in a more melodic direction. Indeed, Kahne was able to coax some intriguing sounds out of Sugar Ray in the studio, and make the most of McGrath's untapped talents as a vocalist.

"Fly" is probably the best example of the band's newfound emphasis on sturdy pop structure. Built around a funky, hip-hop beat that's accented by the dance-hall reggae of Jamaican artist Super Cat, the song packs a hefty hook quotient in both its verse and its chorus. Still, the song's breeziness and relaxed tempo shouldn't be taken as a signal that Sugar Ray has abandoned its harder-rocking ways. Floored's "Speed Home California," "Cash" and "RPM" all deliver plenty of adrenaline, not to mention the sort of keyed-up party vibe that mushrooms full-force at the group's live shows.

Strangely enough, the members of Sugar Ray originally nixed the idea of releasing "Fly" as their first single, concerned that people might see them as, say, a Sublime rip-off. Fortunately, the band stowed its credibility issues, and went with the advice of its handlers. Sometimes, the secret to success is letting someone else steer the aircraft.

-- Alan Sculley

Sugar Ray performs on Friday, February 27, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $17.50. Goldfinger and Save Ferris open. For info, call 629-3700.

Unwound -- Over the last seven years, Unwound has stutter-stepped from well-structured ennui to full-on sonic maelstroms. And as for their live show, it's nothing short of a painful kick in the ass. Summoning the political fury of Fugazi, the arty momentum of Sonic Youth and the beautiful, looped fret-play of Built to Spill, Unwound remains a guitar band in the best sense of the term. The Olympia, Washington, trio goes out of its way to be dissonant on Challenge for a Civilized Society, its sixth and newest release, while making the most refined and complex music of its career. Bristling with passion and sorrow, Unwound vilifies the establishment in the finest punk tradition, taking the personal and making it political. It's the soundtrack to modern rock and roll's demise. On Thursday, February 26, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $6. The Peechees and Deerhoof open. 862-7580. (Brendan Doherty)

Luther Vandross -- "Luther Vandross?" my mother inquires when informed of the legendary R&B balladeer's upcoming Houston show. "I hear he's ... on another diet." Okay, so that statement never came from my mom; she -- like so many matriarchs -- adores the man. Even so, Vandross's yo-yoing poundage has become a hot topic of gossip these days. It's just another sad-but-true example of what can happen when a beloved celebrity falls victim to a spiteful campaign orchestrated by jealous husbands everywhere. True, the New York native may battle the occasional weight gain, but he's still tops with the women, and his "When You Call On Me / Baby That's When I Come Runnin' " just raked in a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Performance. And let's not forget the many classic tunes that have earned this silky-smooth crooner numerous awards, gold and platinum discs and a plethora of fans -- both male and female. At 11 a.m. Saturday, February 28, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Astrodome. Tickets are $10. 629-3700. (Craig D. Lindsey

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