By any yardstick, Sugar Ray are lightweights. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- some of the greatest pop songs are unabashedly fluffy and disposable, and Sugar Ray's best tunes are both. While no one's likely to use their name in the same sentence with words like art or deep, only a professional cynic could deny that the California-based quintet's sun-drenched music is mighty catchy. With their knack for indelible choruses and canny use of hip-hop flavorings, Sugar Ray are sort of a postmodern corollary to '70s flyweights like Three Dog Night. It's not hip to admit you like them, but their finest songs almost demand that you crank 'em up -- especially if you're in your car alone and ''Fly'' comes on the radio.
The band's fourth album, Sugar Ray, is being touted as their return to ''rock,'' but aside from two or three beefier-than-usual riff-fests (the power-poppy ''Sorry Now,'' the Stonesy pastiche ''Disasterpiece''), it's essentially more of the same. Indeed, the names they drop in their summertime nostalgia song ''Under the Sun'' -- Run-DMC, Culture Club, Men Without Hats, the Clash -- translate into a handy equation for the band's signature formula: One part hip-hop plus two parts pop plus one part rock equals smash hit. (Stir in a hunky lead singer, and watch the resulting confection go platinum faster than you can say ''Jeremiah was a bullfrog''!)
Sugar Ray are hardly known for their controversial lyrics, so ''Ours'' -- perhaps the best song to explore the complications of three-way romance since the Byrds' ''Triad'' -- comes as a minor surprise. ''She was your woman, but she was my girl/That would make her ours,'' sings Mark McGrath (who ultimately decides he can't see how they can be together as three). Its edgy subject matter is an indication that these guys may be a tad more interesting than heretofore suspected, so perhaps that Three Dog Night comparison is unfair -- after all, Sugar Ray actually write their own material. And who knows? Maybe in an album or two they'll get all weird and arty on us.