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Soul Asylum
Candy from a Stranger
Columbia

It's taken Minneapolis's Soul Asylum three albums and ten years to shed their sloppy, garage-band-in-overdrive baggage. So you could say the new Candy from a Stranger is a watershed of sorts for the band's core membership -- with its comfy, middle-of-the road feel, achey power ballads and infrequent concessions to fist-pumping stadium rock.

Meanwhile, the trio is still searching for that permanent fourth link after drummer Grant Young was left gasping in the wake of the breakthrough success of 1992's Grave Dancer's Union. For Soul Asylum, his departure signaled a certain concerted progression toward mid-tempo AOR redemption, which reaches a resounding -- and oddly refreshing -- apex on Candy from a Stranger. Young's tense pounding was, after all, always a bit ahead of itself in the truest punk tradition. For the recording of Candy, Grave Dancer's Asylum temp Sterling Campbell was back behind the set (though it's rumored he won't stick around for the tour this time), his exacting grooves clearing the way for 11 lumbering slabs of unabashedly mainstream Bic-lighter rawk.

These days, lead singer Dave Pirner seems relieved to be practicing his art at a time when "alternative" can encompass anything from Rancid to Brother Cane; mostly, Candy leans more toward the carefully constructed, guitar-drenched drama of the latter. "It's gonna hit me like a bolt of white lightning," sings Pirner in his creaky tenor on "Close," as guitarist Dan Murphy encourages that weepy sincerity with delicate strums of a mandolin. "Here it comes, my peace of mind."

Granted, Pirner could be referring to a newfound sense of self after his breakup with actress Winona Ryder. But given the vagueness of subject matter that typically saddles his prose, it somehow seems more fitting to associate those sentiments with the music. From the measured, retrospective angst that pervades "I Will Still Be Laughing" and the marvelous bookend epics "Creatures of Habit" and "Cradle Chain" (which contains one of Pirner's most affecting vocals to date) to the perky, pure-pop mechanics of "See You Later," "Draggin' the Lake" and "No Time for Waiting" to the flabby '70s indulgences of "Lies of Hate," Soul Asylum traverses some fairly mushy territory, veering perilously between schlock and substance.

But somehow, Candy's at times questionable ingredients congeal into a reasonably compelling whole, thanks to primary songwriter Pirner's unconditional compassion for the classic-FM nougat on which he was weaned. Whether skimming licks from the Beach Boys, the Faces, Springsteen or late-period Who, Soul Asylum's lack of discretion when looting history is not only admirable, it's inspiring, triggering soft-focus episodes of deja vu without insulting the past. With alternative rock at an impasse, their cheesy retro-crimes seem innocent, even a little liberating. And that's what makes Candy a guilty pleasure worth savoring. (***)

-- Hobart Rowland

Lenny Kravitz
5
Virgin

If there was ever an artist who got off on the sounds he makes, it's Lenny Kravitz. With his larger-than-life, dinosaur-rock antics, hallucinogenic sonic booms and confident ability to bounce from one genre to the next, Kravitz gets giddy with his music the way Tom Wolfe does with words.

Yet the jury is still out on whether Kravitz is really a misunderstood pop genius or simply a pretty-boy armchair boho. And his fifth album, cleverly titled 5, isn't likely to provide clear-cut proof either way. Deemed his most "urban accessible" release to date, 5 is entertaining and vigorous and surprisingly light on pretension. Call it Kravitz's Spiceworld.

5's first single, "Live," combines the singer/guitarist's typical neo-hippie lyricism with a sun-baked California chord progression and a horn section reminiscent of the Ohio Players. Getting refreshingly personal, Kravitz fashions a beautiful ode to his late mother on the Caribbean-flavored "Thinking of You," while "Little Girl's Eyes" has him waxing decidedly bluesy about his daughter Zoe. For 5's more standard love songs, Lenny kicks into vintage hip-hugger Casanova mode: He can make a girl feel desirable (the retro-disco number "It's Your Life"), amorous ("You're My Flavor") or just plain aroused ("I Belong to You" might as well be subtitled "Those Panties Are Mine").

As usual, Kravitz does overstep his bounds on occasion. The space-age superhero theme song "Super Soul Fighter" and the '80s new wave throwback "Black Velveteen" further the contention of skeptics that he wishes he were Prince. But those silly, self-involved moments are rare, and they fail to detract from 5's nostalgic spirit. After all, who needs oldies radio when you've got Kravitz? He's his own vintage Top 40 station. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Ugly Americans
Boom Boom Baby
Capricorn

With Boom Boom Baby, Ugly Americans officially take back the "ugly" in their name. Not that their credibility as babe-baggin' louts was ever really in jeopardy. Here in Houston, their frequent shows often reach near-bacchanalian heights of hump-and-bump sexual innuendo. Even so, the Austin band's randy nature did get a bit diluted in all the slick, soul-boy crooning and lovey-dovey beating around the bush of their 1996 Capricorn debut, Stereophonic Spanish Fly.

That said, Boom Boom Baby is likely to catch a few off guard -- especially those who've never witnessed the Uglies' trash-talking alter ego, the Scabs. Indeed, this 13-track effort's frequent odes to horizontal living (and we're not talking about snoozing) are Scabby to a fault, splashing in a testosterone-loaded cistern of chest-slamming, frat-rat bravado and fuck-happy funk ferocity. "I think I have the oomph / Fuck your daughter in the butta," lead singer Bob Schneider raps on "Chilly at the Crib," one of several tactless boasts that very nearly slip by in the current of Boom Boom's roving party groove.

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