They had lemon candies on the counter next to the cash register. Slug's girlfriend baked lemon bars for the staff. There were Willy Wonka-like gold-lemon tickets hidden inside several copies of the CD. Somebody even put lemon hand soap inside the tour bus parked outside.

"This whole lemon thing is gonna grow old pretty fast," Rhymesayers staffer (and Current DJ) Kevin Beacham joked Monday night at Fifth Element, when the record store hosted the midnight release party for Atmosphere's new album, "When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That [expletive] Gold."

With hundreds of young fans lined up in the rain -- 1,000-plus would file through the doors by the time the party wound down around 4:30 a.m. -- Slug and Ant were relishing the lemony hype.

The rapper and producer/DJ, respectively, didn't do much talking or promotion behind their flood of releases over the past year, including the four seasonal "Sad Clown" EPs and the full-length party album "Strictly Leakage," issued as a free download on Rhymesayers.com. So at least one of them (guess which one) was chomping at the bit to discuss "Lemons."

"We started making this record before any of those other releases," Slug said aboard the bus, which was headed straight to a gig in Chicago after the party. They warmed up for their tour with a surprise gig Sunday at 7th Street Entry.

"Once we started writing and recording, it became obvious to me how I wanted this album to turn out," Slug explained. "So when other songs would come up that didn't fit the scope of the record, I knew I could set them aside for something else, like the EPs. That actually wound up helping us navigate the record better."

No question: "Lemons" is the most cohesive of Atmosphere's six "proper" albums. The tracks are all tied together thematically, and more than a few of them actually seem tied by a noose. There's a steady story arc amid its chaotic tales featuring a Hold Steady album's worth of troubled, desperate and/or seedy characters, only one of which is Slug (for once, it's not all about him).

What's more, the music matches the lyrics like never before. Not only is this the first album to incorporate the Atmosphere live band -- guitarist Nate Collis, bassist Brett Johnson and keyboardist Erick Anderson fill in over Ant's usual mad sampling -- but it's also the first album where Slug and Ant truly worked side by side. Because Ant went on tour for the first time after 2005's "You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having," he and Slug came back to the same clean slate.

As Slug put it: "There was nobody at home making music, so I got to see a lot of the songs from the ground up -- I got to actually see behind the curtain."

Said Ant, "It took a lot longer this way, but I think it benefited us in the end. I had watched people write before, but not like this -- every day for six or seven months. And I knew what the songs were all about from the get-go. You know, I still don't even know what [the 2002 song] 'God Loves Ugly' is about."

There's plenty of interpreting to be done with these new songs. Character-driven songs such as "The Waitress" (featuring beatboxing by none other than Tom Waits) and the not-so-anonymous alcoholic tale "Your Glasshouse" (guest vocals by TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe) are vivid tales of urban loneliness with no preachy messages. There's also no clear conclusion to "The Skinny," about trying to quit cigarettes, and the "Dirty Mind"-grind first single "Shoulda Known," about an even worse vice.

Probably the easiest songs to understand are the two most autobiographical cuts, "Yesterday" and -- no surprise -- the one simply titled "Me." The former is a tough but tender riff on Slug's dad, who died of a heart attack in 2006.

"Me" reads like "Slug: A Life," a memoir. It recounts how he practiced kissing on his own hand as a kid, how he grew to love his son's mom and even how he disapproves of rough sex. The confessional tone is nothing new, but it has some of Slug's best writing ever. (Sample: "He puts the man in manipulate/ And he's attracted to the women that reciprocate.")

"Even those songs that are about me fit the story of the album," Slug said. "'Yesterday' is a closure song, about coming to grips and being OK with certain things with my dad. And 'Me' just puts closure on a whole load of stuff."

Closure, in other words, is the album's "Gold" lining.

If it all sounds a bit morose, "Lemons" also has two of the most poppy, upbeat songs in the Atmosphere canon: "Dreamer" and "You," a counterpart of sorts to "Me." The latter is so dang catchy, with a disco-y bass line and chorus you can sing (not rap), Slug said he had to talk Rhymesayers honcho Siddiq Sayers out of making it the first single.

"Those songs came from just being ridiculous, like, 'Try this,'" Slug said. "There's no way I could've been able to put a song like 'You' on [previous records], but it fits the story, and there's enough painting with dark colors on the album that it balances out me trying a little shade of baby blue."

Later, during the first of their four hours signing CDs, Slug was finally busted for repeating himself.

"You wrote that the last time you signed something for me," a blonde in her late teens complained to him. I didn't catch what he wrote, but I caught the PG-rated drift of it.

Hey, at least the guy avoided repeating himself on the actual CD.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

A stormier Cloud Cult

Cloud Cult was smart to spend a couple weeks on the road before returning home for its big local show to tout its eighth album in as many years: "Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)." By the time the familial psychedelic collagists take over First Avenue on Saturday (6 p.m., $13-$15, 18 and older), fans will have had time to get to know the record -- and to get used to some of the noticeable differences on it.

For many years, Cloud Cult sounded like frontman Craig Minowa's personal home-recording project, for better and worse. "Feel Good Ghosts," though, marks its transformation into a fully realized band. The evolution no doubt grew out of its bulging tour schedule in recent years, and it may or may not have something to do with recent lineup changes, including the addition of second string player Shannon Frid (hired while Sarah Young was on maternity leave) and former Tapes 'N Tapes bassist Shawn Neary. There's also a new drummer, Arlen Pfeiffer.

There are more instrumental moments this time, from the freaky and frenetic techno-bop "Hurricane and Fire Survival Guide" to the chamber-pop gem "Must Explore" (gotta love those strings!) to the opener "No One Said It Would Be Easy," which starts out like the usual folky strummer but erupts into a bursting finale. Having caught one of the band's sets at South by Southwest, I can tell you a lot of these new "jams" are firestorms live. Meanwhile, "Story of the Grandson of Jesus" is classic Cloud Cult -- and just classic, period.

Iron & Whiskey

Sometimes still thought of as a jam band that dabbles in outlaw country and Allman Brothers boogie, the White Iron Band has pretty well shed its tie-dye skin on its third studio album, "Devil's Sweet Revenge," which it celebrates tonight at the Cabooze (9:20 p.m., $8-$11, with Pert Near Sandstone opening). The Iron Range-reared septet offers a greasy smorgasbord of Southern-fried influences on the 13-track collection, from the lonesome-windy ballad "Angels" to the rowdy slide-guitar- and harmonica-fueled rocker "Satisfied" to the drunken singalong "Whiskey Drunk & Bullet Proof." I'd put money on the latter becoming the group's all-time anthem -- and on the CD landing the guys as many bikers and blues lovers for fans as tie-dye kids.

Random mix

Ben Weaver has gone out and landed himself a pretty impressive record deal. The St. Paul-based singer/songwriter is newly signed to Chicago's alt-country haven Bloodshot Records. His first album in the deal, "The Axe and the Oak" (produced by Brian Deck), is due Aug. 12. ...

One more CD party of note this week: The Deaths are alive and kicking on "Centralia," which they're promoting Saturday at the Turf Club. The second disc by the lightly psychedelic, Kinks- and George Harrison-swilling pop quartet, it was produced by local vet Brad Kern and mastered by indie-rock guru Kramer. Not all the songs are old-school hazy, like the dance-trippy "Selector," but the best ones are, like the gorgeous ballad "Stay." ...

Another semester's worth of the Making Music series at the U's Coffman Union winds down Thursday with Spaghetti Western String Co. taking questions from host J.G. Everest (8 p.m., free). ... Everest, by the way, is extra excited about the Roma di Luna CD that's coming out in June, featuring a full band lineup (including Everest) and the studio expertise of Ben Durrant. ...

Wilco's love affair with Low and Alan Sparhawk continues: Sparhawk's Retribution Gospel Choir is touring as the band's opening act for three weeks starting with Wednesday's gig in Rochester. RGC is on its own tour in Europe through this weekend.

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER