I could write a thousand words on Rancid here if I wanted. I spent the better part of the 90's defending them amongst the punx, though my enthusiasm for the band has waned markedly as the current decade has passed.
Its been a few years since their last release: Tim Armstrongs divorce is history, The Transplants experiment is over, and the band has suffered their first member change. The leak of Last One to Die only solidified my impression that the band is running on fumes these days and the generic street punk title, Let the Dominoes Fall didnt get me excited. Sure, street punk has always been a big part of Rancids sound, but as songwriters theyve gone so far beyond the basics that its hard to go back.
From Lets Go until the second self-titled record the band showed steady progress as songwriters and musicians. Sure, they werent changing the world - or even the world of punk rock - but they were masterfully showing different influences while maintaining a steady Rancid sound. For the most part, Let the Dominoes Fall does exactly what 2003s Indestructible did: it shows a stagnant band. The most adventurous songs on here are the pre-release press darlings: Civilian Ways, which sounds much like the political ballad Arrested in Shanghai with a bit of twang and L.A. River, with a chorus that seems to pay homage to Grease while coming at you with a freight train breakdown so conflicting to Freemans shimmy shimmy sham thats downright confusing. I imagine this is what it will sound like if Armstrongs next project involves writing musical theater.
So whats left for a general impression? The band is as active as theyve been this millennium, and the side projects are at a rest. As a result, the record feels more focused than Indestructible, yet it doesnt pack the punch of their earlier releases. Too many songs have a first-draft feel that makes it feel like the band is just going through the motions. The chorus of This Place feels lazy with chants like This place! Has lost its people! This place! Has lost its charm! Im not going to dub Armstrong the poet laureate, but hes always had a strong narrative feel to his lyrics that meshed well with his melodic slur. After East Bay Nights [From] the old house on top of the hill / You can see the San Francisco Bay / Alcatraz over the landfill reference, theres not a lot here besides anthemic, self-referential blanket statements about the state of the world. Too much of the content merely references the past instead of moving forward. And singing about yourself? Id had enough of that in the 90 second Indestructible last time around. Are they doin it for the kids, as half the songs claim, or for the strippers and one night stands otherwise mentioned?
And, in case you were wondering, Skinhead Rob is nowhere in sight, though he may as well cameo on I Aint Worried, a throwaway track where each vocalist takes a swing at the mic and misses badly.
There is good to be found. East Bay Night wastes no time reminding my why Ive always liked this band, with descriptive working class lyrics, Armstrongs melodic slurs, Freemans bass, and a sense of poppy catchiness. New Orleans, Dominoes Fall, and Lulu are all great, memorable Rancid tracks and Last One to Die, despite its narcissistic lyrics, utilizes Rancids melodic hooks as weve grown accustomed to over the years; The Bravest Kids has the rumbling bass and group-sung vocals that have carried Rancids records over the years; and Rancid has always excelled on their ska songs. Up to No Good sounds like if Old Friend did it with Fall Back Down and its peppiness effectively mixes up the albums tempo, much like Time Bomb did on that one record in 1995. Armstrong takes charge of the lead vocals, with Matt Freeman and Lars Frederiksen splitting time about equally, though Freeman has fewer notable basslines than youd expect. Much like on Indestructible, the band is taking a cleaner, poppier approach.
The packaging of the box set is impressive and generous. Two discs plus a DVD makes it hard to complain. I have no need for collector guitar picks or posters, but the concept is nice and the lyric sheets are a necessity with Armstrongs singing. I would have preferred that each disc had its own digipak instead of one fat, fold-out, but what can you do?
Overall, the record definitely exceeded my expectations (and the bonus acoustic CD is surprisingly listenable). Rancid continues to shift their sound in a poppier direction without betraying their roots. For the unapologetic fan, Let the Dominoes Fall is a natural progression in the bands career, and is far less disjointed than Indestructible. It feels complete, and it feels like the band is playing as a unit. There is a good share of classic Rancid on here, but it just doesnt feel like they have anything new to say.
Rancid changed my life when I was twelve years old. Yes, Nirvana and Green Day had me going in the right direction, but Rancid absolutely changed me with their shocking mohawks, messy tattoos, and irresistibly catchy punk rock tunes. Once I bought ...And Out Come the Wolves I knew I had to be in a band and play music forever. So I have a certain affinity towards this band that since 1995 has experienced peaks and valleys, releasing a great album, then a venomous album, then a sorta half-assed album. Six years since the release of their last one, and the first since the loss of long-time drummer Brett Reed, Rancid is throwing their hat back into the ring of punk rock relevance with Let the Dominoes Fall.
The major complaint heard so far with this album is its lack of energy, and the reason for this is obvious: Tim Armstrong. Whether it's from older age, fatigue, or just a lack of self-awareness, Armstrong has let his voice become a parody of what it once was. For most of the album he sits in a vocal register just barely above a speaking voice, only occasionally making a real effort to put some urgency or excitement in there. What's strange is that Armstrong is probably not bored with this material; he just doesn't know how bad he sounds. Can't producer Brett Gurewitz chime in there on the studio speakers and tell him to stop being weird? Or can't one of the other band members just say something to him? His vocals in the verses of "This Place" were obviously first-take and laid down with no effort, so all that's needed is to push Armstrong in the right direction, and maybe he can get the magic back next time.
Aside from punk rock, Rancid is also known for mixing ska into their stew, and they do the same on Let the Dominoes Fall, with varying results. "Up To No Good" is unabashed fun, with an uplifting organ from Booker T of the MG's making it fantastic. But when they try it again on "I Ain't Worried," it gets a little embarrassing. I hope no one would ever try to argue for the musical value of Armstrong's side project, The Transplants, but any who would will love the hopelessly white rapping in these verses, in which Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen and Matt Freeman all hop in, featuring such genius lines as, "Worn out sneakers, skinheads, mohawks, when we all get together, yeah, the music won't stop." And while we're mentioning Matt Freeman, it needs to be said that his vocals are actually getting difficult to listen to. He's always had that gruff charm, and it still comes through in the playful "L.A. River," but it's pretty clear he's having a hard time singing.
Rancid has always gotten a little political, but not in the way they do on this album, where they resort to what George Carlin called "soldier sniffing," otherwise known as piling praise onto the men who go to war for America. It's the type of sentiment that beats you over the head, for no reason at all. Everyone respects soldiers. We don't need to have Armstrong writing a song where he says, "The bravest kids I know are the ones who gotta go fighting over there," not just because we probably already agree with him, but also because he's saying nothing new or inspiring. But to really catch us off guard, the band strips a song Armstrong wrote for his soldier brother, "Civilian Ways," down to a lovely acoustic arrangement with a guest mandolin. The song is a little lengthy and uneventful, but it gives you such a warm feeling you end up forgiving its faults.
And other than all of that, Rancid supplies the usual dose of punk, just as they've done for almost two decades. Some of it is great, some of it is average. And that's the story of Let the Dominoes Fall, an album that tries its hardest but just can't make it over the hump. I want to love it and praise it and applaud them for staying great, and even though I can't, I'm sure they're happy with it. At this point, if Rancid is happy, maybe we can just let them continue to feel that way. They deserve to be at peace.
6.55 / 10
Reviewed by 2 writers.
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