By the time you finish reading this article, there is a good chance that the latest pop sensation will have already come and gone. Another one of those borderline-novelty acts with, perhaps, one decent song to its name will have bubbled up, scored a hit complete with an overplayed video, sold millions of records, and then released a follow-up that only a small portion of its previous audience cares about. It’s a familiar scenario — call it the Peter (Frampton) Principle — but one that’s been surreally accelerated in the last few years. Remember recent hits by OMC? Nada Surf? Weezer? Chumbawamba? Hell, do you remember the bands themselves?
In that regard, you have to feel a little sorry for Sugar Ray. Two summers ago, they came out of nowhere — well, Orange County, Calif. — with ”Fly,” an ingratiating wisp of light-hearted sea breeze. That song, taken from their second album, Floored, made them the 1997 Furbys of the MTV spring-break crowd. In the life spans of today’s bands, that means their moment is just about up, and that one of the other 25,000 or so acts releasing new albums this year (no joke — that’s the average) will supplant them. Sugar Ray seem to know this too; in cheeky recognition of their possibly fleeting fame, they’ve called their third album 14:59.
Which isn’t to say that the band’s not planning for the future. In an attempt to forestall impending obsolescence, they’ve devised not one but three ready-made follow-ups to ”Fly,” all recapturing that song’s piña cola-daze vibe: ”Someday,” ”Ode to the Lonely Hearted,” and the first single, ”Every Morning,” which more than recalls Hugh Masekela’s ’60s hit ”Grazing in the Grass.” As with ”Fly,” this is Sugar Ray at their most likable, woozy, and melodic, making music for shooting hoops or sipping a cold drink on a blistering day.
In another attempt to ward off the follow-up flopitis that they themselves seem to think is inevitable (judging by recent interviews to promote the album), the band devote the rest of 14:59 to turning themselves into other bands. They toss off a few cuts of generic and derivative skate-punk metal, in which Sugar Ray sound like nothing less than the offspring of the Offspring. (They even let off steam like adolescents; ”Sometimes, I just want to be left alone!” goes ”Personal Space Invader.”) In an unconvincing attempt to act adult, they recruit rapper KRS-One to vamp through the comparatively dark ”Live and Direct.” And, in the ultimate desperation move in case none of the above-named tactics work, they resort to the hoariest of current strategies: a remake of an ’80s hit. In this case, it’s Steve Miller’s lumpy ”Abracadabra,” which hardly ranks as an enduring classic worth reviving.
It’s genuinely hard to hate Sugar Ray; like ”Fly,” they grow on you. His cavalier-hunk image aside, singer Mark McGrath has an appealing, Everydude rasp, and recent appearances on Politically Incorrect and VH1’s Rock & Roll Jeopardy (on which he displayed a surprising, and impressive, knowledge of rock trivia) demonstrate he has a working brain beneath his expensive buzz cut.
Still, listening to 14:59 is a somewhat sad, depressing experience. These days, everyone — musicians, record executives, and especially fans — seems more aware than ever that pop has become disposable and that the very idea of a career artist appears to be as outmoded as vinyl LPs. For all its insouciant cheer, 14:59 is the sound of a band resigned to the possibility that they may be one-hit wunderkinds and that the 2 million fans who bought their last album may have moved on to Barenaked Ladies. (”We’re not gonna save the world, and we’re not gonna blow it up,” said McGrath in a recent interview — hardly fighting words.) 14:59 doesn’t make a compelling case that those fans need care anymore; at barely 40 minutes long, bookended by gag songs, it waves its slightness right in your face. But imagine graduating into a profession knowing that you’ll have one, maybe two good years ahead of you, to be followed by years of also-ran status. Whether or not 14:59 becomes a hit, the deeper damage has already been done. C+