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REVIEW: Rancid, Life Won’t Wait (Epitaph)

“What you are about to hear may well revolutionize your way of thinking,” begins Rancid’s new record (recalling NWA’s album opener “You are about to witness the power of street knowledge!” ), before the single “Bloodclot” charges in the door. On the first listenings, it sounds like just another recent Rancid song: dual vocals, energy to spare, big chorus singalongs, and “Hoover Street” follows with a fuzzed up intro that promises more of the same old, and suddenly the song becomes, dare I say it, delicate. Sure the song kicks in with loud guitar chorus, but these sound halfhearted somehow, and it’s the hypnotic and quiet “it’s a glass pipe murder” phrase that stays with you. And the chorus singing “oh yeah!” actually sounds tempered with sadness about drug abuse and not the wall of marching soldiers chanting of “Salvation”.

It’s enough to take the edge off of Lint Armstrong’s annoyingly stylized slurring (has it gotten worse?!) which turns relatively passionate words into a big glob of spit. Consistently great singing from Lars helps too, as well as guest vocals from a lineup of (presumably) from ska and dancehall all-stars (from the Specials, Hepcat, Buju Banton, even the Mighty Mighty Bosstones! ) scattered throughout. I’m not qualified to judge their credibility, but their presence uniformly adds variety and texture to the record. And I personally find the pseudo-authentic stylings of old-school ska and dancehall here to be way more appealing and bearable than the toiling masses of punk-ska bands, probably because I don’t personally have any notions of ska-authenticity and just listen to the pretty sounds. And of course the playing is sharp throughout and the singing gravelly and energetic.

Despite the opening warning of a revolution, this record traces an evolutionary path. After “Hoover Street” Rancid serves up a great string of songs that progressively strays from their mastered Out Come the Wolves sound: “Black Lung”, words spilling out dreaming of a workers revolt and the end of day; “Life Won’t Wait”, a medium paced ska with the chant “the vision is a new world order” (I think) which implants itself into your brain; “New Dress”, a rather pretty song… bellowing vocals backed with restrained guitar and vocals; “Warsaw”, Rancid doing a Pogues song (not literally); “Hooligans”, another infectious speedy ska song busting into “Crane Fist”, the most hypnotic and looping and unusual and braingrabbing song on the record. “Leicester Square” finishes off a great run of music with energy and a great sounding guitar riff (Rickenbackers, according to the press release).

Most of the second half of the record hasn’t grabbed me nearly as much as the first. “Backslide” and “Who Would’ve Thought” are huge letdowns after the great run. “WWT” sounds like a rewrite of “Ruby Soho” minus the excitement and even the pretense of street poetry. The snare sounds good, at least. Anyway, you’ll probably get to judge for yourself since I have a horrible feeling they’re going to release this song as a single.

Then follow “Cocktails”, pretty ordinary; “The Wolf”, as little of a departure from the last record as the title suggests; and “1998” could have been an average Rancid song in 1994. “Wrongful Suspicion” is a bit better with return to a ska sound, but then follow a string of unobjectionable songs ending with Lint’s vocal at its irritating worst in “Corozon de Oro”. “Coppers” seems like a weak and weary end to a long affair. It’s probably made worse by Long Record Syndrome- 22 songs is a lot to handle– but I do think the second half is not as strong, interesting, memorable, or good as the first.

The only standout song for me from the second half is “Cash Culture and Violence” which proves that if you start with a great title, take Matt Freeman playing his usual precise and ornate bass, annoying vocals saved with a brilliant sounding echo, and toss in a chorus that makes your heart soar, it doesn’t matter if you can’t understand the words, it could be just a jumble of protest-type words and phrases, but it rocks. I prefer to imagine that Rancid released a brilliant single record (the first ten tracks) which ends with “Cash Culture and Violence”, and then threw in eleven bonus tracks. And if you buy this record, you can imagine it too, thanks to the magic of CD programming.