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Fun Lovin' Criminals

Gangster-chic made a big pop-culture comeback sometime in the mid-'90s. I speak not of the bling-bling gangsta rap still dominating MTV and suburban teenage stereos, but of the stylish archetype of cosmopolitan cool personified by men like Al Capone and Tony Soprano. Guys who cop a swagger and reside in life's seamy underbelly without ever removing their dark sunglasses. Fun Lovin' Criminals capitalized on this whim when their hit single "Scooby Snacks" off 1996's Come Find Yourself became ubiquitous on alternative radio and went to number one in the UK. They were brash, funky and had that smooth affectation thing down pat.

The trend didn't last long, and neither did the Criminals' popularity stateside, though they've remained well-liked across the pond. But the trio has continued along the same alt-rap path, mixing hip-hop beats with jazzy percussion rhythms, guitar riffs and boisterous boastful rhymes. In some ways they are descendants of the Beastie Boys, though not nearly as interesting or diverse in their musical talents. A closer relative is Everlast, the former House of Pain frontman who crossed over to make blues-laden hip-hop jams.

The Criminals are touring to support their latest effort, Welcome to Poppy's, and their live act takes the gangster act to a whole other cartoonish level. Huey, the lead vocalist and guitar player, plays head goon, trolling around stage with a thick New Yawk streets attitude, dressed in outlandish garb and spouting cocky lyrics about high living, weed and women. Exhibit A from a song about Friday night in the city: "I rock the conga line with my bad left leg/you know I'm bonafide so you can all get bent/Fuck the war on drugs, fuck Bin Laden/y'all can't mess with us 'cause where you never been I'm in." If it all sounds a bit ridiculous and over the top, it is, but don't run screaming back to indie rock land just yet. The Criminals fully intend to be parody, so if you can appreciate their ruse, it really is all in good fun and the idea is to have a good time and get your dance on.

The band is at their best when they pull out the jazz stops and use their instruments to create some smooth live hip-hop grooves. The Criminals' finest tunes are in the chill-out mode, a la Groove Armada, and their best song "King of New York" (an appeal for the release of renowned mobster John Gotti) has a relaxed cool flow that sounds great at 5:30 in the morning coming down from the drug of your choice. If you're not put off by their exaggerated style- find a blazer, grab a spliff, buy a scotch and soda and enjoy the music. Oh, and don't forget your dark sunglasses.