* * 1/2 SUGAR RAY "Sugar Ray" Lava / Atlantic

The quintessential skateboard-brat party band uses a palette of sounds (from heavy guitar riffage to buoyant dance beats), a smirky disposition and a lyrical frame of reference that doesn't extend much beyond cold love and hot sex. Throw in its frontman, Mark McGrath, a spiky-haired, toothy hunk who looks like an extreme sportsman, and you've got a machine-tooled byproduct of the current teen zeitgeist.

Despite the band's mooks-on-the-beach image, it has displayed a knack for breezy tunefulness in the past, especially on its 1997 hit "Fly," a fluffy bit of piffle that was hard not to sing along with. The band works "Fly's" ska-flavored pop formula to within an inch of its life on the new album (in stores Tuesday). Such tracks as "Words to Me," "Stay On" and "Ours" are obvious bids for radio play, but their sturdy melodies and McGrath's boyishly charming vocals give them kicky appeal.

Had Sugar Ray (which headlines the Universal Amphitheatre on July 18) recorded an entire album's worth of these mindlessly endearing ditties, it might have produced a stronger effort. Instead, "Sugar Ray" is bogged down by pop-metal mediocrity. "Answer the Phone" and "Satellites" are thudding examples of Matchbox Twenty-esque metallic pomp. As songwriters, the members of Sugar Ray have the goods to become perennial goofy hit-makers, but first they have to turn the volume down.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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