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The Boston Phoenix Old Faithful

Soul Asylum stay the course.

By Gary Susman

MAY 11, 1998:  For 17 years -- half their lifetimes, and many generations in pop lifespans -- the members of Soul Asylum have been playing more or less the same brand of Midwestern four-piece combo rock. Throughout the '80s, that made them seem out of step with the synth-pop mainstream and got them labeled punk or alternative. When their guitar-based sound finally came into vogue in 1992, at the time they were releasing Grave Dancers Union, Soul Asylum suddenly found themselves on the front lines of the revolution, where they were rewarded with multi-platinum sales for their persistent, quixotic adherence to a ragged aesthetic.

Once the outsiders were insiders, however, it became the classic, sad old story. Questions of authenticity and charges of selling out, merited or not, were inevitable. The follow-up album, 1995's Let Your Dim Light Shine, sounded confused about how they should handle their new status. (The line "Frustrated incorporated" from the chorus of the single "Misery" seemed to acknowledge that the band had turned their angst into a marketable corporate commodity.) Singer Dave Pirner dated starlet Winona Ryder and had a cameo in her calculated Gen-X-appeal movie Reality Bites. Drummers came and went like Red Sox managers. The other three members indulged in numerous side projects: Pirner played drums with the O'Jeez; guitarist Dan Murphy made a recording with Golden Smog and toured with the Jayhawks; and bassist Karl Mueller served as house DJ with Babes in Toyland's Lori Barbero at a Minneapolis club.

Three years after Dim Light, the pop landscape has been paved over yet again. Guitars are back out; self-consciously artificial dance pop, teenage bubblegum, and digitized music are back in. And here come Soul Asylum with Candy from a Stranger (Columbia -- in stores this Tuesday), which by today's standards sounds retro and quaint. By the standards of half a decade ago, it sounds unusually pop-oriented and melodic. By tomorrow's standards, who knows?

Yet there's nothing here that's much different from the last album, the album before that, or most any Soul Asylum album since time immemorial. Candy is your basic Midwestern three-chord four-piece guitar-combo rock (the album's drummer was Sterling Campbell, who has left the band since completing the CD last fall). It has 11 new songs, all a respectably brief three or four minutes long, that will sound great live, whether ringing off the walls of a club full of moshers or echoing in an arena full of fist wavers and lighter flickers. The opener, "Creatures of Habit," wouldn't have sounded out of place thumping alongside "Misery" and "Just like Anyone" on Dim Light, or between "Somebody To Shove" and "Black Gold" on Grave Dancers Union. In fact, it's as catchy as that album's "Runaway Train."

All the songs were composed or co-written by Pirner, whose quavery, earnest rasp has its trademark mix of bitterness, anxiety, and romantic yearning. Like Paul Westerberg, his contemporary Minneapolis punk-icon-turned-mature-grown-up, Pirner has a secret classic-rock muse who is at least as great an influence on his songwriting as say, the Velvet Underground or the Ramones. For Westerberg, that guilty secret was Elton John or Paul McCartney; for Pirner, it's Bob Seger or John Mellencamp. Beneath the mild Dylanesque putdowns of "I Will Still Be Laughing" is music fit for a rousing arena-rock anthem. And beyond such witty, marketable-angst lyrics as "Sent on a mission to find out just how much shit one man can take" (from "Dragging the Lake"), Pirner reveals himself to be a sincere, even spiritual and devout guy ("When you watch over me, I am blessed," he sings in the same song) searching for meaning in everyday Middle American life. (When the singer visits the big city, in "New York Blackout," he is literally and figuratively lost in darkness.)

The sound here is just as roots-oriented: Murphy's guitar is satisfyingly crunchy, Mueller's bass gratifyingly solid. There's not much textural variation, aside from some harmonica on "Blood into Wine" (one of many twists on Christian metaphors here), or the barely apparent '70s-soul-style vocal harmonies on "The Game" (aptly, a cousin to Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones," with its first-person account of a guilty adulterer, and akin to the band's tentative use of soul keyboard legend Booker T. Jones on Grave Dancers). Soul Asylum are essentially the same band as ever. It's amazing how far they've traveled without having to leave home.

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