On the opening track of SWAX, Scapegoat Wax lead singer Marty James introduces himself and asks, "You want to know who I am trying to be / Do I rap or do I sing?" Unfortunately, the answers are a lot less interesting than James seems to think. Who he's trying to be varies from song to song, but the list includes: Anthony Kiedis, Brad Nowell of Sublime, Prince, Eminem, Duncan Sheik, and those guys who sing for Sugar Ray and Smashmouth and every other Cali rock/rap/pop outfit of the past 10 years. And the issue isn't so much whether he raps or sings, but whether he does either one well.
SWAX is the second album from the Chico sextet, following a 2001 debut on the Beastie Boys' defunct Grand Royal label. The Grand Royal experience wasn't a happy one, from the sound of it. On the new album's "Back Alive", James taunts, "You want to know what happened with Mike D.?" Later, he sniggers, "My label president said I was fat / And he made me lose like 40 pounds / It didn't make a difference anyway / He ran the label in the ground". It would be easier to sympathize if you could tell what Mike D. or anyone else saw in Scapegoat Wax to start with.
Don't get me wrong -- SWAX isn't a terrible album, even though that's how it struck me at first. After repeated listens, I found myself remembering and even enjoying bits and pieces of it. The initial impression of a bunch of hacks cribbing lite alt-rock/R&B grooves from all too obvious influences didn't fade, but it stopped bothering me quite so much. After all, a lot of the guys James and his crew are ripping off (or paying tribute to, depending on how you see it) were pretty derivative in the first place. There's nothing particularly wrong with Scapegoat Wax that isn't also wrong with Sugar Ray. Except that Sugar Ray has recorded a handful of guilty-pleasure radio gems. So has Smashmouth, for that matter. And there's nothing on SWAX that's likely to sound as good on oldies stations in 20 years as "Someday" or "Allstar".
Although the press kit makes a big deal of Scapegoat Wax's "genre-hopping" and wide range of influences ("from Prince to NWA to Rick Springfield," it says, which actually explains a lot), the most striking thing about this album is its utter conventionality. If these guys think having a DJ in your band is somehow a daring move (or that it makes you "hip-hop"), you can only wonder where they've been. The thin funk and snoozy grooves here are not only nothing new, they're already past their use-by date. Half the top 40 in any given week is more innovative and musically recombinant than anything on SWAX. While Timbaland and Missy Elliott are making like latter-day Alan Lomaxes, scouring the globe for the ingredients of the next great beat, Marty James and his boys are sitting around, smoking "lots of weed", and apparently listening to nothing released after about 1993.
There are also lyrics on the album, of course, about which the less said the better. Sample line: "The rain is beatin' on your front porch / My main source of desperation is the memory torch". Inoffensively tuneful and unremarkably funky, Scapegoat Wax wouldn't necessarily compel you to change the station in your car -- you just might forget the radio was on at all.