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Rancid's Worth the Wait

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Nice Guys Finish First: The members of Rancid wed a positive outlook to a deep musical artistry.

'Life Won't Wait,' Rancid's latest, confirms band's commitment to truth in music

By Gina Arnold

ROCK STARS often bemoan the fact that the public doesn't appreciate their musicianship--as if people who like pop music are the modern-day equivalent of Wagnerian scholars or Juilliard students. The truth is, we expect a lot more from our rock stars than just musical talent; we expect things that go way beyond mere music and artistry.

We want them to be beautiful and interesting and picturesque. We want them to be dangerous, sexy, slightly seamy and yet totally earnest. Most of all, we want them, underneath a bold exterior, to be really nice people, the kind who'd hang out with us if they met us in a dark alley.

Now, lots of bands possess a few of these qualities. The Smashing Pumpkins, for example, are beautiful (but not very interesting); Marilyn Manson purports to be seamy and dangerous; Third Eye Blind manages to be both sexy and earnest. But in all my years as a critic, I can think of only one band that fulfills all of these requirements--not just in image and in interviews but in real life--and that is Rancid.

Rancid's members--Tim Armstrong, Matt Freeman, Brett Reed and Lars Frederiksen--are as authentic as it gets. I first met Tim in the pit, as they say, of a Fugazi concert; at the time, he lived near the Ashby BART station in a big gray punk-rock house that housed nine different punk rockers. Lars, who grew up in Campbell, is the kind of guy who has the word "beer" tattooed inside his lower lip, with an arrow pointing down his gullet. Beautiful Brett is married to his car; Matt is a man who loves the band X so much, he started a side group with X's front person, Exene.

They're the real deal, and as anyone who's ever heard their records (Rancid, Let's Go and ... And Out Come the Wolves) knows, they combine total punk credibility with great chops, fervid lyrics and cool, catchy, ska-influenced tunes. But beyond that, they are all good people, as kind and as generous as Natalie Merchant could ever wish.

The members of Rancid have made many a business decision that defied good sense, just because the decision was more ethical: such as loaning their tour bus to the Ramones' crew for Lollapalooza, and staying on the Epitaph label when many others would have left it. One cannot but wish the very best for Rancid, so it is especially gratifying that the long-awaited Life Won't Wait, the band's fourth full-length release, is--at 64 minutes--a truly "phat" record.

This sprawling masterpiece has everything a fan could want, from potential hits to more obscure numbers. Life Won't Wait contains all the aspects of music at which Rancid excels: reggae, ska and dance-hall beats; straight-ahead punk rock; and that uniquely irresistible mix of all three that can only be called "pop." If "Leicester Square" isn't a winner, then nothing is.

The record begins--make that "explodes"--with "Bloodclot," a swift and superdynamic number that includes a "hey, ho" and "na, na, na" sing-along, as well as a sheer slogan of a chorus that goes "Picking it all up and starting all over again!" One of Armstrong's tuneful narratives, "Hoover Street," plays out as a short story about a crack-fiend murder.

The catchy ska number "Hooligans" is particularly hard to shake out of one's head during the last weeks of World Cup play. "Hooligans and rude boys!" yells the DJ in the middle. "I don't want no racial hatred!" Tell that to the Tunisian football fans who were attacked by the English in France a couple weeks ago.

Life Won't Wait was recorded partly in Jamaica, with the help of famous Jamaicans like Buju Banton, who sings on the title cut. The record features a profusion of other musicians on horns, Hammond organ, harmonica and so on, making it a far richer and more vibrant-sounding piece of work than most four-piece punk bands can muster.

Life Won't Wait, like Rancid's previous album, includes a fair share of political screeds. "Lady Liberty," "1998" and "Cash, Culture and Violence" are all about the shortcomings of our society, which is a pleasant change from songs about people's personal angst.

Rancid is often accused of sounding like the Clash, and though at times the band does show off elements of the Clash's sound in its mix (even invoking the famous Clash shout of "Sandanista!" on one number), one would be foolish to leave it at that.

Rancid also sounds like very, very early Bruce Springsteen and (on "Warsaw," in particular) the Pogues, but mostly the band sounds like itself: energetic, honest, tuneful and totally, utterly positive. Keats said that "beauty is truth, truth beauty," and maybe that explains it. But lately I've been trying to figure out what sets Rancid apart from--and well above--other similar groups. I think what makes Rancid so appealing is the force of its convictions and the emotional rightness of its conclusions.

This is a band that doesn't sentimentalize or romanticize any of the things it sings about. Drugs, dirt and racism are all fodder for its observations, but having observed these things, Rancid doesn't dismiss or belittle them. Instead, it finds the strength to rise above them.

In short, Rancid doesn't just vent, it reinvents. The world abounds with bands that are willing to complain about things (and don't get me wrong: there's comfort in knowing that others feel like you do). But how many bands are willing to go that extra mile and make us feel uplifted by our shared humanity? Not many.

The whole concept of "uplift" is usually left in the hands of corny country acts and Celine Dion, whose sheer phoniness undermines whatever sentiment they're spouting. In Rancid, one finds a positive outlook allied to a deeper vein of artistry, and the result is a longer-lasting buzz.

The song "Who Would've Thought" really sums up Rancid's grand ethos. Armstrong (who got married recently) sings the first real ballad of his career, and the subject is--of all things--satisfaction. "Who would have thought that dreams come true/And who would have thought I'd end up with you," he sings, and it's just wonderful to hear.

So many such songs--like Green Day's hugely popular "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)"--dwell on the darker, more poignant aspects of love. The wonder and joy in "Who Would've Thought" are such rare things to hear, and one couldn't hear them from people who deserve them more. Those who make us happy ought, by rights, to be happy themselves. I hope that that's the case with Rancid.

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From the July 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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