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'Separated' at Birth?: The Offspring got their start in snowboarding videos but have managed to round out the decade with a megahit.

The Offspring veer to the puritanical and cautionary on new album, 'Americana'

By Gina Arnold

WHEN THE OFFSPRING first broke through on the radio with their 1995 "S.M.A.S.H." hit "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)" (from the LP S.M.A.S.H.), the band seemed like a natural one-hit wonder. Already 10 years old, the Orange County punk group specialized in funny rock novelty songs that came to prominence in snowboarding videos. But as pervasive as "Separated" and "Self-Esteem" were that summer, the band didn't sound like it had enough creativity to last out the decade.

Miraculously, nearly four years later, the Offspring are still going strong and have even penned another megahit. Thanks to "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," the band's fifth album, Americana (Columbia), looks to be the holiday gift of choice for all smart boys under 15.

Or perhaps that's not such a miraculous occurrence. The Offspring sound more and more like an updated (and better-produced) version of the Dead Kennedys, and the DKS--an early San Francisco punk-rock band best known for its mouthy lead singer/mayoral candidate Jello Biafra--have proved awfully durable over the years.

Like that of the Dead Kennedys, the Offspring's text is the hypocrisy of right-wing American values. Now this is a subject that has been dear to many adolescents' hearts from time immemorial but perhaps never more so than today. Thanks to the Internet-accessible Starr report and the equally transparent (and accessible) bipartisan impeachment proceedings, young people must be even more disgusted by the false morality of their elders than ever before.

On Americana, the Offspring's Bryan Holland has really tapped into this sense of alienation. But although his manner is refreshingly free of irony, it is also bizarrely conservative--reflective, perhaps, of Holland's home turf, Orange County. Musically, Americana is mediocre at best, a melee of thunky rhythms and unimaginative three-chord punk tunes. But lyrically, Holland (who holds a Ph.D. in biology from USC) demonstrates a nicely timed sense of outrage that often breaks through his music's more pedestrian aspects.

Here's the deal, though: Holland portrays himself as a sweaty, feel-good, punkity rocker, but the gist of his songs is strangely conservative. "Pretty Fly" is of course the quintessential example of the Offspring's art. The story of a white kid who wants to be dope, it combines rap and rock in a sendup of every rich white kid who thought he was keepin' it real by wearing baggies, drinking Colt 45 and getting a dumb tattoo. Charmingly, "Pretty Fly" even samples a Def Leppard song ("Rock of Ages") to help get its point across--the Lepp being the whitest band of all time.

SURPRISINGLY, however, the rest of Americana has a strong puritanical element to it. In "The Kids Aren't Alright," a song about urban angst, Holland decries kids who drop out, smoke pot or have babies too young.

Other songs on the album evince similarly uptight themes: "Have You Ever" contains the chorus "When the truth walks away/Everybody stays, because the truth is, crime does pay." "Staring at the Sun" uses the metaphor of a drive-by shooting to describe Holland's feelings of powerlessness and danger.

For someone with such a bleak outlook, Holland has kept his music amazingly upbeat--but, alas, not very catchy. The most tuneful number on the new album is, of all things, a hardcore punk-rock cover of "Feelings," by another Orange County resident, José Feliciano.

After that, the record gets heavy again. "Walla Walla" is an "I told ya so" warning about jail time and taking responsibility for your own actions. "The End of the Line" is about a funeral, and "Why Don't You Get a Job?" extols the Protestant work ethic to a jaunty calypso beat. All three sound like they could have been written by your grandpa in one of his more self-righteous moods.

In short, Americana is one of the least politically subtle LPs of all time--although, come to think of it, Dead Kennedys records like Holiday in Cambodia and California Über Alles were hardly paragons of subtlety. Americana culminates in a title song that, like "California Über Alles," really savages modern times. "Well, I'd like to tell you all about a place/Where strip malls abound and diversion's a mere moment away/And where culture is defined by the ones least refined," Holland sings in a brief bout of nostalgie de la boue.

The song also bears the ever-popular chorus "Fuck you!" and with a sentiment like that, the Offspring may have no trouble keeping their place as one of the decade's more popular nuevo punk bands.

Still, a good long look at the message and values the Offspring espouse will definitely surprise baffled parents who tend not to listen too closely to lyrics. The truth is, the Offspring's prevailing political attitude is concerned yet conflicted--a complete sea change from the embattled, mocking apathy of bands from a few years earlier. It's too soon to tell, but Americana may well herald a more activist attitude in the upcoming generation.

The Offspring play at Not So Silent Night Thursday (Dec. 10) with Hole, Rancid and Garbage at the San Jose University Event Center.

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From the December 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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