Candy from a Stranger
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
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
Boom Boom Baby
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.
Indeed, Boom Boom Baby doesn't waste an inordinate amount of time on subtlety. As a result, a radio edit of the title track (also the first single) is required -- and even so, the band ought to expect minimal warmth from programmers, as its chafed-raw funk/R&B setting isn't exactly airwaves friendly. Still, Boom does offer less brash options: "The Wrong Direction" nears a transcendent fusion of redneck boogie and cocktail jazz; "Spacesuit" is a worthy stab at glam psychedelia; and "Dancing at the Foot of Angels" is a sultry, intelligent cock-rocker's blues.
Largely, though, the Uglies' randy, well-traveled elixir is best ingested live. For there, among all the bodies and beer, sweat and other bodily fluids, a lamentable couplet like "I'll lick your pussy / I'll lick your lips" is finessed into submission by the sextet's spot-on groovesmanship. (** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
Ugly Americans perform Saturday, May 9, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge.
For 18 years, Bad Religion has gone about refining punk's few-chord formula into something far greater than the sum of its simple parts. Arguably the only aberration in an otherwise unwavering mission was a 1983 experiment in bouncy keyboard pop called Into the Unknown, which was largely disregarded by fans. Perhaps that has something to do with why chief songwriter/lead vocalist Greg Graffin chose to funnel his sensitive folk cravings into American Lesion rather than the new Bad Religion release.
And it's a good thing, too, because sometimes it's just plain disturbing to hear Graffin crooning like a post-apocalyptic Billy Bragg on American Lesion, deploying mostly frayed strands of piano and acoustic guitar to get his point across. At certain times, the music is loungey and light; at others, it's hillbilly trash, with lyrics that are far more personal -- and far less political -- than anything he's done with Bad Religion. And apparently, that's sort of the point.
But a little fumbled introspection is no match for 16 new, armor-plated Bad Religion cuts. No Substance marks the first time all the band members -- including Graffin, of course -- have participated in the songwriting process, and despite the more democratic approach, Bad Religion's uniquely politicized music and message remain pointed and consistent. No Substance isn't as fever-pitched as earlier Religion efforts, but the rip-roaring melodies of tracks such as "Shades of Truth," "In So Many Ways" and "Raise Your Voice" display the band's increasingly sophisticated hook sense.
And the group still has a way with vicious parody and bracing narrative. Especially amusing (and disturbing) is "The State of the End of the Millennium Address," in which a "self-appointed authority" gleefully offers "blatantly evident factoids" such as "the Internet has expanded our ability to pacify average Americans better than ever" and "the first word in USA is 'us.' " It's an exhilarating and outspoken scenario reminiscent of the sermon in "Voice of God Is Government" from Religion's 1982 debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse? Wouldn't you know it: Some 13 releases later, Bad Religion is still on that long, hard path to becoming one of the more uncompromising bands of our time. American Lesion (**); No Substance (*** 1/2)
-- Sande Chen
"Are You Jimmy Ray?" inquires the insufferable hit single. Yep, that's him all right. Now, if we're lucky, he'll take that chiseled coif of his and go away ... far away. (*)
-- Hobart Rowland
In the "don't get mad, get even" vein of cashing in on former associations comes Union, the debut release from the band led by ex-KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick and former Motley CrYe warbler John Corabi (bassist Jamie Hunting and drummer Brent Fitz fill out the lineup). Both musicians, of course, were tossed aside in favor of their original counterparts when the two bands were hit with reunion fever.
That means Kulick and Corabi have something to prove -- not only to their former employers, but to fans itchy to see whether they can function on their own. Alas, on both counts, Union falls short. In fairness, the group does show an occasional spark when taking on standard, metal-by-numbers fare such as "Tangerine." They also exude a greasy funk aroma on the hummable "Pain Behind Your Eyes."
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For his part, Kulick (always an underrated guitarist) leads a powerful consolidated attack on the raucous "Old Man Wise" and "Love (I Didn't Need It Anymore)." Corabi, on the other hand, has to be the out-of-the-gate favorite this year for Metal Edge's Blandest Singer honor. His one-dimensional middle range is ill-suited to pushing the limits of the more mediocre numbers -- of which Union has too many. In most every aspect, this Union needs more time to bond. (**)
-- Bob Ruggiero
Union plays Instant Karma Tuesday, May 12.