At once Bay Area punk legends, Rancid seems to be venturing further into musical lethargy. Their seventh album, Let the Dominoes Fall, plays more as uninspired musical banter than punk-like gusto.
The unfortunate downward spiral began after the group’s second eponymous release in 2000. By far the group’s most deliberately volatile record, and a brilliant response to detractors claiming that the band had lost its punk sensibilities, the band has since puttered into parody.
You may remember the songs “Time Bomb” and “Ruby Soho” off 1995's ...And Out Come the Wolves, garnishing the group radio and television play, earning them a larger, more diverse audience. The difference between that exploration into more pop-sensible material, as opposed to their more recent bouts, was that it was a far more genuine musical progression of the band, whose previous albums documented songs on the more punk rock side of things.
The 2003 album, Indestructible digressed more frequently into pop-punk, with artistically-weakened lyrics and a more conscientious self-appraisal of the band’s stature. It seems this is the musical algorithm Rancid has assumed for their latest release.
The album opens with the rather infectious “East Bay Night,” which ruminates upon the hometown of lead singer and principle songwriter, Tim Armstrong. The song best exemplifies what Rancid has become in recent years: a band that has resigned itself to constructing melodic songs that lack the creative energy and fervor of their more youthful material.
The album's second song, “This Place” evokes, ostensibly, the punk sensibilities of the group's second album, 1994's Let's Go, with resonating background vocals that bellow the song’s hook. However, it also shows the apparently worsening slurs of frontman Armstrong, as he painfully extracts the verses with mere demo-like finesse.
The band’s ska element, first documented on Wolves, comes back into the fold with the toe-tapping “Up to No Good.” Here the band evokes the sound of 1980s ska with a highly danceable beat and toe-tapping musical accompaniment. It is a departure of the band’s orthodox ska-influenced material (although the album's best ska song can be heard on “That’s Just the Way It Is Now”).
Disconcertedly, it seems that the success of Rancid has gone to the group’s head. The album’s single, “Last One to Die” plays out as a rather narcissistic appraisal of the band’s longevity. “We only listen to the words that we sing / Now a million are singing along” counters Armstrong to his ambivalent detractors, arguing that Rancid has weathered all proverbial storms and remained the principle survivor of the early `90s punk circuit (shhh...we won’t remind him about that Green Day band).
The ego-filled boisterousness also rears itself in the slightly comical (although unintentionally so) “I Ain’t Worried.” In the last of the round-robin vocals featuring three of the four band members, bassist Matt Freeman projects “I don’t give a goddamn what they say / I was born and raised in the East Bay.” Yawn.
Songs such as these do their best to undermine the once well-harnessed musical ability of a band that helped bring punk rock to a larger audience. As with their previous (and just as enervated) Indestructible, it seems Rancid must put forth more effort into sounding like a punk rock group as opposed to doing it naturally, plunging them further into unintended parody and diminished musical significance.
For the hardened fan, this is all rather disquieting. Their 1998 album, Life Won't Wait featured some musically diverse songs, as the band ventured into the realms of rockabilly and reggae, as well as more orthodox rock-fused tracks. The energy that accompanied the band’s musical zeal was palpable at that point in the band’s life. It is a sad thing to see a once-promising musical group now stagnate in seemingly continual prosaicness.
Even the few instances of creative forwardness are not enough to salvage Dominoes. The chorus of “LA River” exemplifies the cleverness that the group still possesses, albeit now in more limited quantities. “New Orleans” is a heartfelt and moving lament to the Katrina-scourged city. And the acoustic “Civilian Ways,” written from the perspective of a wartime soldier, painfully reminds diehard fans of the potential that the band still has.
It is too bad that these gems must be squandered among mediocrity.