Sugar Ray: self-titled

Sugar Ray
Sugar Ray

One person’s marketing dream is another person’s hellish nightmare. Welcome to the dichotomy that is the current self-titled release from the Southern California musical fraternity boys known as Sugar Ray. On this, their fourth long-player, you get 11 catchy melodies tailor-made for summer radio play, sunny soft rock that sticks with you like some kind of aural cotton candy, sweet but not filling. More than ever, Sugar Ray has come together as a band, putting out a very solid effort, yet remaining ever eager to give their listening public what they want. Whether this is good news depends largely on your personal musical tastes, whether you consider the impressive Sugar Ray marketing juggernaut a “selling out”, and whether you view such widespread popularity as a positive or a curse.

Formed initially in 1992, Sugar Ray has made a habit of touring often and touring hard. Their first album came out in 1995, but it was their second album that scored their first big-time hit with “Fly” in 1997. By that time, the band was opening for acts like The Sex Pistols, Korn and Cypress Hill, building a fairly devoted following. Along the way, they’ve sold tons of albums. Their last effort 1999’s 14:59 went triple platinum and spawned two more hits, “Every Morning” and “Someday”. While a huge commercial success, this album didn’t garner much critical respect.

One of the criticisms was that the band tried too hard to please, to the extreme of changing their sounds in search of a more popular musical identity. In the course of this evolution, they traversed styles as diverse as punk/metal, ska/reggae, surf-rock, and even what their original harder-edged fans dismissed as fluffy “sissy girl” rock. While many hardcore early fans found (and continue to find) these changes upsetting, it hasn’t hurt the band’s popularity, nor should it now. Chances are good that this CD will be their best-selling album yet — but for many valid reasons.

Factor in the teenage girls, for one thing. Pretty boy lead singer Mark McGrath looks like he could be equally at home as a cast member of Dawson’s Creek or on the cover of Maxim or GQ. He’s not just a pretty face, as those who saw his stellar performance on Rock N’ Roll Jeopardy know. Mark and his fellow Sugar Ray compatriots are as crafty as they get. Touring has translated into musical growth and a skill for delivering what the public wants, for better or worse.

Seeking to capture the electrified “live” feel of the band on tour, they sought out a new producer to capture what previous CDs had not — a more rocking aspect. Don Gilmore, best known for his work with Lit and Eve 6, was brought in for the challenge.

Gilmore has produced Sugar Ray’s best album yet, though in truth they turned to former producer David Kahne to add finishing touches on two of the most infectious tracks, “When It’s Over” and “Ours”. The results are still slick pop — but yes, there are more rocking guitar licks from Rodney Sheppard and more drums and cymbals bashed by Stan Frazier. This is evident particularly on the Blink-182-like track “Sorry Now”. The band is tighter than in the past, with fine bass lines from Murphy Karges and not nearly enough turntable wizardry from Craig “DJ Homicide” Bullock.

Gone is the light pop looseness of their past singles, and most musical hard edges have been smoothed out, leaving only traces of the once heavy metal and reggae/ska influences. The only reggae-type beat evident here is found in “Stay On”, featuring guest vocals by 311’s Nick Hexum. Lyrically, the boys have advanced slightly to a point where sometimes women are rejecting them now, a sign of growth if not necessarily maturity. “Under the Sun” offers a wistful nostalgia for summer days on the beach, along with the music of Run-DMC, Culture Club, The Clash and Men Without Hats. Remember, this is good summer fun, not rocket science. McGrath’s vocals do a fine job with the subject matter available.

Honestly, there isn’t a track here that couldn’t compete as a radio single. “Answer the Phone” opens the CD with a hook that owes more than a casual thanks to Ray Davies and The Kinks’ “Do It Again”. The first single “When It’s Over” offers the familiar sunny groove and beat of Sugar Ray past, served up anew with hooks galore to sink into your summer subconscious. The marketing/promotion behind this single is nothing short of amazing, redefining “media blitz” with a slew of TV appearances and even an animated video for The Cartoon Network. The basic gist is that if you cannot escape this song, eventually you will have to surrender to it.

“Waiting” is another solid song, a circuitous exploration of the wilder Hollywood life and its effect on one man’s ego and in turn, his love interest/relationship. “Ours” is a pretty tune that reflects on a love triangle: “She was your woman, but she was my girl / one on one, queen of two worlds / and that would make her ours”. “Just a Little” shows a new side of Sugar Ray, one that has a bit of country/alt flavor to it, while “Disasterpiece” allows Sheppard to do his best Keith Richards imitation on a song inspired by the honor of getting to open for The Stones in a trio of stadium dates in 1999. Again, almost every song here could contend for release as a single.

If this is Sugar Ray’s best effort, perhaps it does deserve to sell in a big way. I’m just not sure I can find a way to dismiss the hype surrounding it — but I’ll try. The group has grown musically, they’ve finessed an ability to write genial songs that beg for summer as a backdrop, and are tighter than ever as a band unit. True, this collection of well-produced songs won’t change the world, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand either. All told, this is a big step forward for Sugar Ray. This self-titled CD, while guaranteed commercial success, might also get the group some of that critical praise that has thus far eluded them.