Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Let The Dominoes Fall: The Great, Underrated Audio Masterpiece of the '00s

Excuse me for having a bit of a complicated relationship with the punk-rock band Rancid. They made some of the catchiest and best pop-punk anthems of the '90s and were miles ahead of their contemporaries (Green Day and The Offspring specifically) in terms of songwriting, passion and, you know, musicianship. I still think that the first ten or so songs of ...And Out Come The Wolves amount to one of the strongest halves of an album released during my lifetime, and once you start with it it's tough to stop (well, at least until "Old Friend" kicks in and lets us know that the party is breaking up, and it's time to go get our coats from Matt Freeman's bedroom). What's more, unlike a lot of punk bands led by dudes from the suburbs, Rancid actually speaks with some authority when it comes to talking about squalor and oppression, since the core of the group is three white guys from Oakland who were, um, not well off. These are guys who actually have something to say about this stuff, and deserve to be heard.

The problem with Rancid is often that while they obviously demand more attention than, say, blink-182, I don't think they've ever quite come together in the way they wanted to, or needed to. Rancid is easily able to have fun and write unstoppably catchy, well-written songs, as hit singles like "Ruby Soho" can attest to. They can also be politically astute and passionate in the classic left-wing punk tradition*. Their problem has been the lack of synthesis between these two objectives. I consider the band's first two albums to be mostly a warm-up, and ...Wolves, their third full-length, features political content, though much of it is fairly shallow when you think about it. "Roots Radicals" is the most political song on the album, but its political content is mostly invoking the names of other radicals and signaling solidarity with them. Life Won't Wait, the follow-up, is much more political and deliberately tries to evoke comparisons with The Clash's London Calling, but the songs don't quite take off as much as on the previous album. The exception is the title track, which gloriously melds island reggae and punk energy in the service of a blistering social justice message:

This is, unfortunately, the exception on the album. It generally sounds good, but its best moments are the least political, like the old-school punker "Leicester Square" and "Who Would've Thought", a surprisingly adept love ballad that evokes The Ramones' "Baby, I Love You" as an unlikely but delightful melodic surprise. One should never trivialize the difficulty of writing a good song in either of these styles--unless you've written a bunch of hits yourself--but much of Life Won't Wait is an attempt to try to meld social consciousness with verve and fun, and it doesn't quite all come together the way it should have. It's hardly a bad album, but not the masterpiece that "Life Won't Wait" pointed to.

In any event, the next three Rancid albums smacked of flailing. The next album was the self-titled Rancid and found the band moving in a hardcore direction, and was followed up by the groove-and-hangout vibe of Indestructible and the clearing-out-the-cabinets B-Sides And C-Sides. Indestructible was released six years before they'd come out with Let The Dominoes Fall, during which point people seem to have moved on from Rancid entirely. After nearly a decade of flailing to define themselves (or even put out new content at all) I can hardly blame them. So little of an event did the band's most recent release make that my Rancid-loving friends hardly mentioned it, and perhaps didn't even bother to purchase it. Dominoes opened to lukewarm reviews generally, with only IGN sounding particularly favorable:
With punk now more than ever a fashion statement keeping the likes of retail shops such as Hot Topic afloat, it's refreshing to see seasoned vets like Rancid back on the scene to show the new kids how it's done. Rather than merely resting on its considerable laurels, the band continues to cross boundaries, genres and scenes, all while retaining its punk core. Let The Dominoes Fall is full testament to that.
I think this is right, but it doesn't go far enough. I've listened to the album five times now, and every time I become more convinced that the album is a real breakthrough for Rancid, and a bona fide masterpiece that perfectly captures the full flavor of the present time. Rancid leaves a lot of stuff off the table here--the fixation on their place in punk and the obsession with copying The Clash particularly--and instead makes an album that's mostly about how they're feeling these days. That might not sound like much, but it is not only their most authentic record (not just an "authentic" record, whatever that means to audiophiles) and it's the most urgent and compelling thing they've ever done.

Things get started with "East Bay Night", very much a hard-charging (but very, very fun!) Rancid tune in the classic fashion. It hints at the album being another Indestructible, though that turns out to be a complete head-fake. It is meant to lull you in for the kill:

The big show-stoppers here are "New Orleans", which songwriters should study as the way to make a song about a traumatic disaster without overplaying it. No angry tirades, just telling details ("a scar across her velvet face") and an undertone of sadness that still manages to rock.

Then there's "Civilian Ways", which is the emotional center of the record. It's basically about a soldier trying to fit back into civilian life after coming back from fighting overseas, which might not be a completely original idea for a story, but it's executed well here. The band goes for an unusual for them mandolin- and drum-centric arrangement, and imbues the song with a pathos that goes beyond politics. We are living in a time when America is still fighting wars overseas that everyone who doesn't watch Fox News regrets as mistakes and that most people (myself included, regrettably) rarely think about. But Rancid thinks about them, and "Civilian Ways" is as straightforward and honest an attempt to come to grips with our state of affairs as you're likely to hear:

This is followed up with "The Bravest Kids", which continues in much the same vein, with Tim Armstrong offering a tribute to the titular kids, the ones who went over there to fight.

Much of the rest of the album is an attempt to grapple with our post-Bush, post-financial crash country. "This Place" mourns corporate power, Armstrong feels "Disconnected" from the country he loves, and "I Ain't Worried" gets the gold prize for irony. Plus, there's "Let The Dominoes Fall", the title track, where Armstrong sighs about his political alienation and the lack of accountability of people in power, which is reprised in "That's Just The Way It Is Now". For a group that has prided itself on being more progressive than your average band, it's surprising just how keyed into the current mindset Rancid gets here. There's no talk about revolution or radicalism, but that actually makes the actual radicalism of the record stand out. And though the album is despairing at times, there are hints of optimism too. This isn't a giving up record, it's a "we lost this one, but we'll be back" record, and it's one that happens to be a nice exponent of left-wing patriotism, which to Rancid means a hell of a lot more than flags and car magnets. The album ends with "The Highway", a subdued song about how making music can ease tensions and provide joy, which seems almost necessary after going through the darkness of our present situation. And then there's the structure of the album, nineteen tracks that cumulatively clock in at about 46 minutes, which means that the average song is a bit over two minutes. Not that unusual for punk rock, but it really works well on this album, since each song constitutes one coherent thought or emotional fragment that speaks to the album's themes. It plays to their strengths, as the group is easily able to find lots of exciting music to put them all too, and it manages to be varied without feeling like a self-conscious attempt to ape the variety of The Clash. What's more, the album sustains its power and listenability the whole way through, and doesn't peter out like some Rancid albums I know. Desperation suits Rancid just fine, and the introduction of real stakes to the proceedings seems to have focused the group as never before. Not that it's all serious: "Skull City" is something of a love song, and "LA River" features bassist Matt Freeman on vocals (as do a few other songs on the album), something of an odd choice that actually fits the record quite nicely. (The only Rancid member missing in action on vocals: new drummer Brenden Steineckert.)

At some point, I'm going to have to stop gushing about the record. It's a masterpiece, with strong lyrics and a great cumulative power that speaks to a lot of things people are working out right now. The irony is in that by not trying to be The Clash, they've put out their Clash-iest record yet: the pointing out of problems coupled with the vulnerability of not being able to fix them is something that American punk doesn't often do (Because what social problem can withstand a blistering punk rant, of course?), but it is quintessentially British. The Clash wrote songs about Britain's problems of the time with urgency, as Rancid does here, but both bands get at anger and frustration that surpass the immediate time and place that incite them. And the image of Rancid that comes through here is one that represents their ambitions fulfilled: a band that can channel the friction and dark energy of society into music, and make the sound of that music accessible, fun, and weighty. The modest, even self-effacing Rancid that made this album is completely different from the Rancid that once blabbed about revolution: they've discovered that the world is a serious place, that behind the abstractions of banksters and politicians are real people who will suffer, and that it's okay to feel as if you can't do it all alone. In other words, with Let The Dominoes Fall, Rancid has finally grown up.


*The most prevalent tradition, anyway. You have your fascist punks and nihilist punks too (Sex Pistols being an example of the latter).