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They Only Connect

Staind is a standout in dark rock not for its song craft, but for a straightforward style that speaks directly to fans.

November 25, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at

It's easy to dismiss it as a hollow ritual these days when young rock fans hold up cigarette lighters during a concert. But jaded rock veterans should realize that young fans today may be motivated by the same genuineness that first inspired someone, maybe around the Woodstock era, to raise a flame during a ballad as an expression of affection and bonding.

Especially if those fans are at a Staind concert.

Staind is a quartet from Massachusetts that has worked its way up through the same aggressive, usually relentlessly dark metal, rap-rock and hard-rock world that gave us Korn, Limp Bizkit and many other contemporary best-sellers. The group was even discovered by Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst.

But Staind's highly melodic style and frequently vulnerable themes would fit more comfortably into the post-grunge world of Pearl Jam.

Wherever you place it, Staind is hot. Its latest album, "Break the Cycle," has sold more than 3.5 million copies since May.

Singer Aaron Lewis, whose voice impressed Bono enough for the U2 leader to bring him aboard for the recent "What's Going On" charity recording, writes about many of the same subjects on every other hard-rock or metal album of recent years: alienation and lack of self-esteem. But he brings them a perspective and balance that are usually missing.

The ballad "It's Been Awhile" was No. 1 on the modern rock and mainstream rock radio playlists for almost four months this year--as revolutionary a showing in its way as Ice Cube's tender "It Was a Good Day" and Tupac Shakur's sweet "Dear Mama" were in the macho hard-core rap world of the early '90s.

In the song, Lewis lists many of the dark moments in his life: "It's been awhile since I could hold my head high ... It's been awhile since I could say I wasn't addicted ... It's been awhile since I've seen the way the candle lights your face."

The song is invariably dismissed by adults when I play it for them as more of the whining that has turned them off to modern rock since the arrival of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But they are missing the point of the song (just as other adults missed the point a decade ago of many Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs).

The message of "It's Been Awhile" is that it is possible to move beyond the issues of low self-esteem that sometimes seem crippling to young people. The song's narrator has reached a point where he has begun to see life in more positive terms and accept responsibility for some of his past mistakes. In the song's closing line, he even says he's sorry to those he has hurt or let down.

In "Outside," another song that inspired hundreds of fans to hold up lighters during Staind's set during the Family Values Tour stop at the Arrowhead Pond this month, Lewis looks past the alienation and despair that have turned '90s metal/rock into a caricature. He tries to comfort a troubled friend by saying he can see through the ugliness both feel inside and can imagine better days ahead.

Although Rolling Stone put Staind on its cover, rock critics generally have been as slow as parents to notice that Staind may be helping rock turn a page by showing that the young audience is ready to emerge from its decade of darkness. The band, whose instrumental textures range from slashing to graceful, consists of Lewis, guitarist Mike Mushok, drummer Jon Wysocki and bassist Johnny April.

One reason Staind is easy to overlook is that its music isn't artful in the way that meets the usual critical standards.

For starters, the songs are so straightforward they don't fit into any revered style. Lewis writes the words in an almost stream-of-consciousness style when the musical tracks, written by the entire band, are finished. There is little subsequent editing. The results aren't complex or poetic enough to be Dylanesque, nor abstract and provocative enough to be Cobain-like.

All they do is connect.

In "Epiphany," one of Staind's most evocative songs, Lewis even makes fun of his inarticulateness. "I speak to you in riddles because my words get in the way."

Backstage at the Pond, Lewis is as straightforward as his music. He was shocked, he says, by the acceptance of "Break the Cycle" because he knew it went against the commercial grain in rock's dark Kornfield.

In his songs, Lewis simply tells his story. "It's all autobiographical

It was mostly bad times in the group's first two albums, the self-financed 1996 debut, "Tormented," and the breakthrough 1999 Elektra/Flip collection, "Dysfunction," which sold more than 1 million copies.

At 29, Lewis is a good 10 years older than the average Staind fan, and he wondered before releasing "Break the Cycle" whether the audience would relate to its transition from the youthful despair of the first two albums--he once had fleeting thoughts of suicide--to his more hopeful outlook.

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