Fun Lovin' Criminals

Fun Lovin' Criminals' first hit, "Scooby Snacks" (from the outfit's 1996 debut, Come Find Yourself), was easy to dismiss as imitation gangsterism too kitschy for its own good. But it's important to note that much of the Criminals' output has been informed by the misspent youth of frontman/guitarist Huey, who, following a stint in jail, experienced real hardship in Operation Desert Storm after a judge gave him an ultimatum: Join the service or do more time. So the act's street-level tales of down-on-their-luck deadbeats, drugs and the Mafia, though often delivered with a grin, belie a somber, humanistic heart beating beneath all the stylized bravado.

Even more noteworthy is the way Huey and keyboardist/programmer Fast's predilection for cognac-smooth '70s soul and classic rock has translated into jaw-dropping production prowess; here the duo replicates both styles with dead-on authenticity. The Criminals' last American release, 1999's 100% Colombian, remains an unsung modern soul classic as buttermilk-sweet as Meshell Ndegeocello's latest effort.

Half of the material on Welcome to Poppy's, the followup to 2001's import-only Loco, would sound right at home on soul radio from 25 years ago. The other half leans more toward the rock side of things. The only drawback is the way the song sequence zigzags between moods (a lot like the band's debut, only with less continuity). Nonetheless, the increased refinement and maturity of Poppy's are impossible to ignore. Hopefully, the disc will dispel the Criminals' self-proclaimed cult-act status. Welcome, indeed.


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