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This yearís models
Jewel and Sugar Ray smile for the cameras
BY SEAN RICHARDSON

Since 1995, when she burst onto the scene with the platinum-selling Pieces of You (Atlantic), Jewel has been many things to many people. Lilith Fair goddess, bestselling poet, actress ó you name it, sheís done it. And sheís still young and hot at 29. Until now, the last thing anybody would have expected from her was to go after the Beyoncés and Ashantis of the world. But thatís exactly what she does on her new single, the sexy club grinder "Intuition." With Shakira/Enrique Iglesias producer Lester Mendez providing the beats, she shoves her poet/artist persona out of the way in favor of the entertainer within. "Follow your heart, your intuition/It will lead you in the right direction," she sings, a kaleidoscope of neon melodies unfurling around her. If following your heart means making a party album at the risk of losing your credibility, she seems to be saying, just do it.

At the height of the Pieces of You phenomenon, Jewel herself probably would have puked at the thought of an "Intuition" in her future. Produced by long-time Neil Young collaborator Ben Keith, that album was a bare-bones distillation of her early days on the San Diego coffeehouse scene. With the smash ballads "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games," she became a folk-pop icon on the strength of her big voice and well-endowed melodies. Her triumph was one of talent over artifice, regardless of the pretentious aftertaste it may have left in some mouths.

It wasnít obvious at the time, but Jewel started making the megapop transition as soon as she became successful. Her second album, Spirit (Atlantic), was produced by Patrick Leonard, whoís best known for the work he did with Madonna during her 1980s prime. A polished affair that remained focused on the girl and her guitar, that disc consolidated her adult-alternative hitmaking status. Veteran Nashville/Hollywood session guitarist Dann Huff signed on to produce 2001ís This Way (Atlantic), which leaned country and played up her storytelling roots.

The problem was, those two albums combined to sell less than half as many copies as her debut ó which is the easy explanation for the overt commercialism of 0304 (Atlantic), her fourth and latest disc. Itís not the first time Jewel has gone after airplay, but it is her first attempt at courting the lucrative youth market. If she hasnít quite turned into Britney or Christina, the presentation does focus on her looks: sheís wearing flashy summer colors on the album cover, and the title is printed in a way that makes it look like a fashion catalogue. And irony goes only so far when youíre getting drenched with a firehose on camera, as she does in the video for "Intuition."

So how does it sound? Although itís tentative in spots, for the most part 0304 is as fun as Jewel intended it to be. "Intuition" is the third song on an album that puts its synthetic foot forward. Like the single, the opening "Stand" gets its kicks from contemporary R&B and its melodies from Top 40 radio on a sunny day. "Mothers weep, children sleep/So much violence ends in silence/Itís a shame thereís no one 2 blame/For all the pain that love brings," Jewel chirps, her folksingerís conscience somehow at ease with her conversion to Prince-inspired orthography. On "Run 2 U," she skips the social commentary in favor of the transcendent romance of slippery Eurodisco.

Fret not, traditionalists ó the overwhelmingly electronic feel of those three tracks doesnít carry over to the rest of 0304. Jewel may not be doing ballads this time around, but thereís plenty for Pieces of You fans to latch onto in the discís midsection. "Hey, U/Do not walk away/Letís choose love, come on/What do you say," she sings on "2 Find U," which starts out slow and somber before settling into an easygoing rock groove. "Doiní Fine" is a hummable piece of dance-floor escapism with live instruments holding down the beat: "So come on, baby/Letís just have fun/Letís breathe stardust into our lungs." Robbie Williams collaborator Guy Chambers gets a writing credit on "2 Become 1," a U2/ColdplayĖstyle anthem thatís not quite as teary as the Spice Girls classic of the same name.

The most effective portion of 0304 is the homestretch, a colorful new-wave pastiche thatís even more unexpected than the R&B/disco homage that opens the album. Mainstream-pop songwriter Rick Nowels, who last worked with Jewel on the melancholy adult-alternative hit "Standing Still," contributes two songs that continue to make a case for him as her best creative foil. On "Yes U Can," she looks to the exuberant bounce of this decadeís coolest megapop album, No Doubtís Rock Steady (Interscope), for inspiration. "Say hello 2 the room where the partyís jumpiní/Where the boys all freak ícause the boots are bumpiní," she sings over a giddy synth melody and a jittery rhythm track.

Mendez gets in on the new-wave act with "U & Me = Love," which might be pushing things too far with the second "Come on, baby" chorus of the album. But thereís no denying Jewelís sexy spoken-word verses, or the way the song approximates the driving funk of Madonnaís "Material Girl." She breaks out the rock guitars on the propulsive "America," which interrupts the party to take a quick shot at President Bush. The Osbournes and Anna Nicole get theirs, too, but Jewel is ultimately here to have a good time: "Take the bad with the good/I wanna change it, but I wouldnít leave it if I could."

Whether 0304 will achieve its commercial goal remains to be seen: a few weeks after the disc came out, "Intuition" had yet to move beyond #27 on the Billboard singles chart. Either way, Jewel makes a more convincing party girl than most pop fans would have guessed.

LIKE THEIR ATLANTIC LABELMATE, Sugar Ray have been watching their album sales decline since the turn of the millennium ó which could be why they too have just released the most commercial single of their career. "Itís so easy/Itís so right/Itís so easy/To rock it all night," sings frontman Mark McGrath on "Mr. Bartender (Itís So Easy)," a frisky club jam that draws its mojo from Pinkís "Get the Party Started." Thatís not the only groove the band hijack for inspiration: the track also borrows the guitar riff from Sweetís "Love Is like Oxygen" and the chorus from Midnight Starís "No Parking (On the Dance Floor)." Itís an irresistible pop cocktail that hits McGrath when he needs it the most: "Mr. Bartender, Mr. DJ/Make me feel good I got fired today/Donít want to be at home alone tonight." Bay Area MC ProHoeZak stops by to cheer him up with a hedonistic rap cameo thatís accompanied by a freewheeling piano jam.

Sugar Rayís megapop move is less surprising than Jewelís: their name has been synonymous with summer fun for years. Written off as alternative-rock also-rans after the commercial failure of their 1995 debut, Lemonade and Brownies (all five of their albums are on Atlantic), they struck gold by turning down their guitars and writing what became one of the most enduring party anthems of the 1990s, "Fly." That song was the centerpiece of their second album, Floored, which began their fruitful relationship with Sublime producer David Kahne. At the time, "Fly" was an aberration: McGrath almost quit the band in disgust over the track, and they kept the pedal to the metal on the rest of the disc.

But Sugar Ray realized they were onto something in time for the making of 14:59, which played up their sunny pop side and became their biggest hit. The singles "Every Morning" and "Someday" were fun and not entirely brainless, and McGrathís good looks made the band an MTV favorite. They replaced Kahne with Linkin Park producer Don Gilmore but changed little else on Sugar Ray, which came out in 2001 and didnít sell nearly as well as its predecessors.

Kahne is back on In the Pursuit of Leisure, which despite its flashy lead single couldnít get further than #29 on the Billboard albums chart the week it was released. Sugar Ray may be yesterdayís news, but they still know how to make a great summer pop album. On the opening "Chasiní You Around," Kahne and the band set a winsome chorus and their favorite Brian Wilson production tricks to a stomping hip-hop beat. Guitarist Rodney Sheppard wrote the song about his young son, but McGrath sings it in typical lovelorn fashion: "Iíve spent all my time chasiní you around/Itís that way now, I found out for sure." The most ambitious track is "Heaven," a harmony-laden beachfront daydream with guest vocals by Canadian pop thrush Esthero.

New-wave junkies that they are, the band are a natural fit for the Joe Jackson classic "Is She Really Going Out with Him?", which they perform as a reverent cover with a little turntable scratching thrown in for good measure. "Mr. Bartender (Itís So Easy)" is the only full-blown electronic track; on the good-time standouts "Canít Start" and "Whatever We Are," their party mode of choice is a "Fly"-style island breeze. McGrath is in trouble with the old lady again on "In Through the Doggie Door," the one song where the group let their SoCal punk roots show. But megapop is their niche these days, and it suits them well ó regardless of what the pop charts say.

Issue Date: June 27 - July 3, 2003
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