Down to a duo of Mark McGrath and Rodney Sheppard, Sugar Ray rebrand themselves as a breezy pop group with Little Yachty. As its winking title suggests, Little Yachty is indebted to the cool, smooth sounds of Yacht Rock, that specific brand of '70s soft rock that's tied to the sea and sand. It's a long way from the punk-funk of Lemonade and Brownies, but not too far removed from Music for Cougars, the 2009 album released after McGrath's immersion in reality TV. During the decade that separates Music for Cougars and Little Yachty, McGrath continued to work the peculiar byways of stardom, appearing on The Celebrity Apprentice, Celebrity Wife Swap, and Celebrity Big Brother, which means that even though time marched on, the singer didn't chase trends. Given this, it should come as no surprise that Little Yachty also feels weirdly frozen in time. While there is some slight production flair that ties the album to 2019 -- notably, it all bears an entirely too-crisp digital sheen -- the record could've come out roughly a decade earlier and nobody would've been the wiser. What does make Little Yachty notable is that this is the work of men who are comfortable in their middle age -- McGrath and Sheppard are all in on the soft rock vibe -- they not only resolutely refuse to crank their amplifiers, they wind up covering Rupert Holmes' singles-bar staple "Escape (The Piña Colada Song). Sugar Ray don't always replicate the sunny vibes of yacht rock; they spend a fair amount of time indulging in island rhythms and gently bouncing reggae beats, the kind of music that's perfect for a Saturday afternoon on a beach. These are executed skillfully but the highlights of the album come when Sugar Ray bend their own SoCal sound to the softer side of things ("Perfect Mornings," "Coconut Bay," "Trouble," "Make It Easy") and, especially, when they co-opt the outlaw vibes of Christopher Cross for the closing "California Gold," which is about as good a yacht rock pastiche as could be imagined.
Little Yachty Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine