The year is 1996. It’s been two years since Beck dropped his major league debut Mellow Gold and the Beastie Boys have yet to follow up on their massive Ill Communication. Enter the Fun Lovin’ Criminals. Hailing from New York City, they stormed the airwaves with the instantly catchy “Scooby Snacks”, and soon critics were calling them the successors to the white boy rap throne then held by the Beastie Boys. However, a few months after the Fun Lovin’ Criminals debut, Come Find Yourself, hit stores, Beck would return with the triumphant Odelay, quickly ushering the Fun Lovin’ Criminals to one-hit wonder status.
Ever since that fateful year, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals have been trying hard to remain relevant. Subsequent albums found the band getting moderate airplay on college radio, but never achieving the success of their debut and hit single. They would gather a larger following in Europe. However, if Welcome to Poppy’s is any indication, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals are still fumbling for a formula that will return them back into the ears of alternative radio listeners.
Spanning fifteen tracks, Welcome to Poppy’s never comes close to achieving a singular vision and is somewhat schizophrenic. Alternating between guitar-driven hip-hop, funk, punk, and even straight-ahead singer/songwriter fare, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals fail to blend their influences into the cohesive sound that made Come Find Yourself a hit.
The album starts promisingly enough with “Too Hot”, an instant booty shaking number led by Huey’s gravel-throated, yet smooth vocal delivery. “Living on the Streets” is driven by a guitar line that seems stolen from a Bachman Turner Overdrive outtake and accented by a great horn section. “You Got a Problem” is vintage Fun Lovin’ Criminals and the best track on the record. A fantastic lap steel riff competes with a chunky rhythm guitar as Huey delivers the lyrics in a delirious flow, triumphantly exclaiming in the chorus: “If the heat don’t get me then the drugs sure will / Stirrin’ scotch and soda’s with a twenty dollar bill”.
Sadly, the fun that can be had in the aforementioned tracks is few and far between. Like every band from New York—hell, North America—the Fun Lovin’ Criminals find themselves addressing the tragedy of 9/11. Now, before I start getting angry emails, the events of 9/11 were devastating and it’s only natural that artists, especially those touched by that day, should address the issue. But let’s be honest: not everyone can be as eloquent as Bruce Springsteen, and in the case of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, the preachy “This Sick World” sticks out like a sore thumb, especially alongside tracks extolling partying and girls.
More awkward moments are to be found when the Fun Lovin’ Criminals abandon their hip-hop and funk influences. “Lost It All”, a sloppy punk tune complete with “Hey! Hey!” backing vocals, is driven by a chord progression that seems lifted from any third rate punk band’s first record. “Beautiful” is an outright embarrassment, lyrically and musically. Huey earnestly sings, “Time has traced its lines on your face / But I think you’re beautiful / And I want no other to be my baby’s mother / Cause I all I see is beautiful”. This saccharine pop song belongs on an entirely different record, as does album closer “You Just Can’t Have It All”. A finger-picked acoustic guitar and a string section lay the foundation for Huey to wax philosophic: “You let me in your bed when it was solace I needed / Now I’m runnin’ down these alleys with wounds that ain’t quite healin’ / Sometimes you just can’t have it all”.
With the Beastie Boys yet to follow up 1998’s Hello Nasty, and with Beck entering sensitive songwriter status with last year’s Sea Change, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals finally have a chance to fill the void. But Welcome to Poppy’s won’t be that record. And I fear by the time the Fun Lovin’ Criminals return with an album as fun and exciting as their first, we might just see the Beastie Boys return with another dose of party-starting hip-hop and Beck finally living up to his status as the white love child of Prince and James Brown, once again leaving this trio from the streets of New York City in the dust.
// Notes from the Road
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