Soul Asylum's Candy from a Stranger

Soul Asylum
Candy from a Stranger

MTV recently asked our mutual friend Puffdaddy if he was harboring any plans to beat Nike to the punch by appropriating a little drum 'n' bass. The Plunderer's response: "I'm just waiting for more of it be made. You know, so I can sample it." Quel cheek! Gone are the days when musical theft took real elbow grease, when sending up your influences didn't necessarily mean sandblasting their burial sites.

Luckily, nobody's told Dave Pirner the news. When he plunders, as he does for much of Soul Asylum's new album Candy From A Stranger, he does it the old-fashioned way: by lovingly learning and re-employing wizened riffs, channeling clichÈs, and intoning his received rockisms like an AOR shaman. Not the "stranger" of his new album's title, Pirner comes on like an old friend--whether he's stealing candy from the Babies, or bringing back bits of rock from the Dark Side of the Moon.

Music half-remembered and half-created has its place. By cobbling with the classics, Pirner reconfigures that secret car radio soundtrack we store in our imaginations as a way to confound the drone of daily life. Seemingly liberated from what William Burroughs called "the fetish of originality," the curatorial Pirner sounds like a rock 'n' roll version of the landscape/portrait composite two Russian pollsters came up with after quizzing us Americans on what we like to see in our visual art.

Soul Asylum shows no signs of returning to the kind of curtain-rending mayhem that defined their early, hard-rocking incarnation. This doesn't sit well with some fans, but the time has long passed for us to buck up and get used to it. Soul Asylum is middle-of-the-road. The band packed it in and bought a pickup. Big deal. Fronting punk is exhausting, and as Pirner systematically sheds the burden of indie-rock baggage, he remains a charismatic conduit of pop's past.

While he's the consummate frontman in live settings, Pirner's got a problem. He's writing songs that need pop production to go head-to-head with young, fresh foes like Matchbox 20, but he's respectfully made to sound like an old classic rock codger who may or may not still have a couple good pearls of wisdom left to impart. Candy calls out for some shut-up-and-eat-your-sugar, car-radio conquest: the door-handle-rattling lows; the cozy-cocky double-tracked vocals; the startling snare-snaps and triumphant guitar swoops. Instead, we're given a supportive drive-time nuzzle from Rolling Stones producer Chris Kimsey. Yes, the knob twirlers must have been on auto-pilot for this one, and the songs string together like a runaway train to Boresville.

"We're close, so close" sings our haphazard sage on Candy's "Close," and he's right. That's what his last few records, Grave Dancers Union and Let Your Dim Light Shine, have been about, formally and functionally. They're about flaws, coming up short, compromising and sucking it up. With bright, shimmering production, this stuff could be just the wistful summer rock we want come May, as we anticipate the inevitable disenchantment that will set in when the hype of spring yields to the sticky reality of summer.

There will always be a niche for mildly inspired, mid-tempo music you can't dance or make-out to--which is to say that Pirner and his handlers haven't failed altogether. His delivery has always been his ace, and on Candy he frequently rescues his deft self from his dumb self. "See You Later" battles the staid production, and still manages to cop a melody from Pink Floyd's "Time." If time is on Pirner's side, he's still gambling that listeners won't long so wistfully for the original material that they dispense with his revisions altogether.

If the Stones' "Wild Horses" drags you away from the mimetic "Blood into Wine," you've got to come back for the tricky, pretty "Draggin' the Lake." In this one, Pirner shakes it out with a punch-the-wall chorus, "Am I still here?/can you hear me?/please say yes." Yes, darling, yes. A hundred times yes. You can even forgive an embarrassingly sincere line about flirting with a friend's wife when the next track is a Who Are You?-era Townshend-style tune with lines like, "Sent on a mish-on to find out just how much shit one man can take."

That's Pirner's mission, and our mission too. On the first pass at this album, you might shake your fist heavenward, vowing to build Dave a Brill Building with your bare hands and produce him like the chart rocket he can be. But after about 40 listens, you might pause and begin to realize that Pirner's got a blessed ability to sound human no matter what kind of moth balls Columbia packs him in. In "Close" he anticipates the obvious critique and admits to "fallin' short of provin' it/just a hair from the truth/a little shy of improvin' it/here I come I'm comin' through." This guy's a lifer, and his dimmest light will always do to at least spark your cigarette.

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