We all know that albums are supposed to be unified musical forms. We also know the much less elevated truth: Most of them are nothing more than collections of songs. But not this one. The Family Stand, a black vocal and instrumental trio who made their first record in 1988 to no remarkable acclaim, set out to make something more of their second, and they've succeeded with no huffing, puffing, or any other sign of immodesty or strain.
Chain has one central theme: an exploration of freedom and dependency. It starts with a look at how people use love, liquor, and religion to escape the troubles of life (''Ghetto Heaven''). Midway through comes an instrumental track (''Oversaxed''), which, if you can forgive the bad pun of its title, provides a mildly elevated taste of sax-centered jazz over a pebbly beat. At the end is a compact, neatly pointed cut (''Little White, Little Black Lies,'' more than a little Prince-like) about the deceptions of everyday life.
The songs between these anchors don't always stand out melodically. But in every other way they expand like sails in the wind. The band's triumph would have to be ''The Last Temptation,'' which builds excitement with gospel-like call and response, then explodes into an unexpected cascade of rock & roll guitar. But there's strength and good humor nearly everywhere on this album, along with crunchy rhythms that root its many styles in the fertile ground of modern R&B and hip-hop. The Family Stand proves to be a real surprise. It outsings, outfunks, and, not least, outthinks R&B groups 10 times more famous.