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Creatures of Habit

[whitespace] Soul Asylum Beware of Strange Musicians Bearing Ear Candy: Soul Asylum delivers wit, energy
and some unmemorably verbose lyrics.

A. Ariga



'Candy From a Stranger' album obscures Soul Asylum's vision

By Gina Arnold

SOUL ASYLUM appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman recently and inevitably got introduced as "one of the best live bands in America." Now, that tag has been following the group around since, oh, 1986 or so--and indeed, back in 1986 the praise was well deserved, because Soul Asylum was definitely as good as it gets.

Led by cute, charismatic singer Dave Pirner, the Minneapolis-based band demolished audiences night after night with a combination of wit, energy and bright, joke-filled pop metal, making it a sort of thinking-man's REO Speedwagon. At its best, Soul Asylum delivered a sound that could be termed "Country and Middle Western," a fun and funny mix of cheesy metal and country rock that could only have been created by a bunch of white guys from the suburbs who were raised on '70s AM radio. But that's a delicate balance--one wrong move, and you turn into Firefall.

And Soul Asylum had better watch out, since nowadays, the joie de vivre that once characterized the band has become undetectable--certainly it was not in evidence on Letterman's show. Instead, in recent years, Soul Asylum has been trying to make its way in the music industry with more mature--and less strenuous--qualities, like songwriting and serious lyrics, and who can blame them? No one wants to play the same old nightclubs forever. Unfortunately, Soul Asylum's ability to transcend the intimate club milieu falls short of its goal.

The band has always had trouble translating its live expertise to vinyl. Soul Asylum has tried everything, from working with former Rolling Stones sideman Steve Jordan to enlisting the aid of Nirvana producer Butch Vig, but every time, the results have been disappointing. The band steps into a studio, and its collective mind seems to go blank.

Soul Asylum used to transcend such limitations on at least one track per album ("Runaway Train," its most famous tune, is heard in karaoke bars everywhere; "Misery," from 1995's "Let Your Dim Light Shine," was an underrated hit). But now those limitations hem Soul Asylum in, and nowhere is that constriction so evident as on the group's new record, Candy From a Stranger (Sony-Columbia).

Candy From a Stranger really isn't a bad record, but it's a bad Soul Asylum record, in the sense that former fans won't find a thing to like about it. The album features bland, primarily mid-tempo, heavily produced songs full of high harmonies and lots of verbose, complicated lyrics that somehow, for all their syllables, express hardly anything at all about love or life. "Love, it can be habit-forming!" is the chorus of the anthemic "Creatures of Habit," which is not exactly a habit-forming quote.

But busy-yet-unmemorable lyrics aren't really Soul Asylum's biggest problem. More troubling is the band's inability--after 15 years together--to carve out a niche of its own. The corny ballad "Close" wouldn't be out of place on a Garth Brooks album. "See You Later" sounds like a lost song from some Crosby, Stills and Nash record.

"No Time for Waiting" is a much better, and catchier, number with a Blue Öyster Cultish edge. "Draggin' the Lake" comes across as a similarly well-written number, if you can stomach its resemblance to a Christmas carol and lines like "The doors to hell look just like heaven's gate!" "Lies of Hate," however, is a mess, and the New Age, soft-rock "The Game" doesn't even bear contemplation.

THE WEIRD THING about Soul Asylum is that its many strengths add up to less than the sum of their parts. Pirner has good pipes, a knack for melody and a real facility with language, but he cannot, for the life of him, evoke sincere emotion or create an individual sound. At times, Soul Asylum sounds like Poco, Air Supply, Def Leppard, the Raspberries and even--on "I Will Still Be Laughing," the bitterly worded and vocally mannered single--a truncated Rush.

What those bands have in common, of course, is their era: they're all bad pop acts from the mid-'70s. But why Soul Asylum has chosen this body of work to emulate is anybody's guess. Perhaps Pirner and mates have just heard too many records and hate all new music.

Clearly, these are guys who love playing. Back in Minneapolis, the members of Soul Asylum are known to play thousands of amusing covers, in various local bands. Guitarist Danny Murphy is also in a Minneapolis supergroup called Golden Smog, which plays country-style covers and originals that are slightly more memorable than the ones on Candy From a Stranger.

Soul Asylum also can't settle on a drummer. The group fired longtime drummer Grant Young in the mid-'90s, replacing him with Sterling Campbell. Campbell played on the new record, but is no longer in the band.

The drummer who appeared with the group on Letterman was Ian Moshington, but he's a temp. Need a job? Soul Asylum is hiring. A big-name big band with a major-label contract ought to be able to fill that slot immediately, but perhaps some drummers might find the music too enervating.

BESIDES, THE TRUTH is that Soul Asylum simply isn't relevant anymore. Its music, though competent, is just too undistinguished for today's listeners. I still feel a great fondness for the group, and I would go see a live performance in a nanosecond, but Candy From a Stranger made me question the nonmusical qualities that attracted me in the first place.

A combination of looks, wit, charm, energy and good nature elevated the band well above its natural stratum. I'd still back Soul Asylum against other mid-tempo monstrosities like Hootie and the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band on those counts alone. The world at large, however, rewards more solid qualities: youth, arrogance and sonic single-mindedness.

Soul Asylum's many records don't really tell you much about the band's artistic vision--if it has one--but nevertheless, the band does have something to offer. Unfortunately, you'll never find out what that something is by listening to Candy From a Stranger.

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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