Monday, June 15, 2009

Rancid - 'Let the Dominoes Fall'

No Skinhead Rob. Better than Indestructible. Worse than Let’s Go, …And Out Comes the Wolves, and Life Won’t Wait. On par with Rancid (2000) in terms of quality, though the styles differ. That’s the ranking on Let the Dominoes Fall, the first Rancid studio album in six years. Plenty has happened to the band since 2003 – bassist/vocalist Matt Freeman went through a cancer scare, drummer Brett Reed quit, and guitarists/vocalists Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen both embarrassed themselves with poor sophomore albums from their other bands, The Transplants and The Bastards, respectively. Aside from Armstrong’s excellent reggae disc A Poet’s Life, the guys needed a kickass album again. And Let the Dominoes Fall is pretty nearly that album.

Let's pause to dismiss the drawbacks and then get back to the gleeful return. The record focuses too heavily on East Bay gang mentality. There’s plenty of chest-beating and lower class fronting going on, which rings a little hollow this late in the members’ lives. But then again, rock ‘n’ roll has always been built on myths, and besides, after such a long studio hiatus, there’s nothing wrong with reaffirming the band’s identity. Furthermore, Armstrong used to be a homeless crackhead. Ergo, he gets to talk about the streets for life.

Another complaint might be the fact that Rancid still unabashedly follows The Clash’s musical template. To those critics I say, “Hey, thanks for coming out. I didn’t notice that connection at all. At all. Hey, does The Gaslight Anthem remind you of any other New Jersey bands? Do you think Bruce Springsteen could be the New Dylan?” The truth is that Rancid takes The Clash’s love of world music and keeps it planted in the punk realm. These ska songs still rock like a two-tone tune, clam flammit.

OK, back to the gushing. As much as I hate line-up changes, I suppose Brett Reed was the most expendable member of Rancid. His replacement, Branden Steineckert (ex-The Used), is a better drummer. Dude’s got superior chops, but he still knows when to get out of the song’s way. A diehard Rancid fan before being asked to join the band, Steineckert understands what makes the act’s formula works.

And at 19 tracks, Let the Dominoes Fall has plenty of room to work. There’s plenty of oi stompers (“Last One to Die”), dub jams (“I Ain’t Worried”), and the occasional stylistic experiment (the acoustic “Civilian Ways” is a touching pro-soldiers song about Armstrong’s brother, Greg, who served in Iraq). There’s even some goofy fun tunes, like “Lulu” and “Dominoes Fall.” The goofiest, most fun track, though, is “L.A. River.” Freeman returns to vocal duties to gargle out words like “boom shakalakalaka boom / shimmy shimmy shake shimmy shake shake shimmy.” It’s bad, but it’s fun, but it’s weird, but it’s good. Ya know? A good dumb party jam.

But maybe that’s the point of the album’s very existence. Armstrong swears “Let the bombs blow / I ain’t got control” on “Dominoes Fall.” A good chunk of the record consists of summer ska-punk jams meant to move feat over minds. But perhaps the moment comes from lead single “Last One to Die”: “You got it wrong / We’re still around.” For all the Clash comparisons, Let the Dominoes Fall fits into a different mold. It’s not Rancid’s Sandinista (That’s Life Won’t Wait) or London Calling (…And Out Come the Wolves) or Combat Rock (Indestructible). It’s really their Batman Begins, a faithful, exhilarating reboot that’s as much for a new generation of fans (2009’s latest high school mall punks) as it for older chumps like me and mine.

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