Rancid: "Honor is all we know"

Car Tapes Review of Rancid Honor is all we know
Rancid’s Honor is all we know is their shortest album and the first one since their debut that features less than 19 songs. It’s solid, but the times when Rancid surprised their listeners seem to be over.

Rancid is a band whose albums I had always been looking forward to. Every new release after their landmark record …And out come the wolves offered something new: Life won’t wait was much more mellow and I thought it suited the band well, 2000’s Rancid 5 was an uncompromising and exhilarating hardcore record, and Indestructible emphasized the pop sensibilities that had already been present on their previous records. I was, however, quite disappointed with Let the dominoes fall in 2009. Something just rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was because for the first time they didn’t surprise me. I thought the lyrics were cliché, their attitude had become a pose, and the whole thing just seemed uninventive and tired to me. Re-listening to it again now, perhaps I found my peace with it. It’s still Rancid, there’s definitely some stuff to like, and even at their most uninspired, it’s still a listenable punkrock record. Let’s just say it with the title of Primus’s 2006 Best-of album: They can’t all be zingers.

Honor is all we know therefore is the first Rancid album for which I didn’t really have any expectations. Perhaps it was a mixture of nervous anticipation and an I’m-not-sure-I-want-to-listen-to-this attitude. Still, I got it as soon as it came out. After a couple of listens, I think that it’s better than Let the dominoes fall. It feels like a band getting together to do what they do best, to do something that seems to come to them easily. All the ingredients for a Rancid record are there: some ska (“Evil’s my friend” and “Everybody’s Sufferin’”), some sing-along punkrock (“Back where I belong,” “Raise your fist,” “Malfunction,” etc.), Tim Armstrong’s idiosyncratic slurred and slightly off delivery, Lars Frederiksen’s more powerful vocals, and Matt Freeman’s great bass lines. I think the way Tim draws out “existsssss” in “Raise your fists” shows that at this point in their career, they are absolutely sure of what they are doing. It’s a short meta-moment that illustrates that they can look at their craft with a certain tongue-in-cheek detachment.

This detachment, however, does not keep them from including some not-so-great lyrics. Lyrical repetitiveness and bad rhymes are pet peeves of mine, so “Diabolical” (with its repetition of “diabolical dance”), “Honor is all we know,” or  “Now we’re through” kind of annoy me.  Another thing that bugs me is that they stick too much to known territory: “Evil is my friend” at times sounds like a ska version of “Lock, step and gone,” and parts of “In the Streets” sound like “Ruby Soho” (both from …And out come the wolves). I like Honor is all we know better than Let the dominoes fall but where their older records always introduced new elements into their sound, these last two albums have settled at mid-tempo punkrock interspersed with some ska (which, I guess, is good news for those who thought Rancid 5 was too harsh and Indestructible too poppy). It’s probably too much to say that they are running out of ideas, but the “experiments” now definitely take place outside of Rancid (for example here).

That moment when fans fear stagnation always reminds me of the guy who tried to raise $10million to get Weezer to break up. What makes us react so strongly to bad albums by our favorite bands? A new album won’t keep us from enjoying the old ones, right? Or does a bad new one somehow devalue the old ones? Perhaps that’s what people are afraid of. Of course, we all would like to remember our favorite bands as the one that recorded several awesome albums and never got worse. Being super excited about a new album and experience that moment of realizing that your favorite band just somehow lost their edge can be  pretty heartbreaking. At the very least, I’d want each new album contain the best part of the previous albums and make them even better. I want it to be a continuous journey rather than one that I cut short prematurely because I don’t want to follow along anymore. It’s the same with movies: if I’m really disappointed with sequels or prequels to movies I love, I find it difficult to just shrug it off. Of course, I can still watch the old ones – but if I’m already treated to a new one, I really want to enjoy my trip back into that world.

Let the dominoes fall felt like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to me: yes, there were a lot of elements that reiterate the things I liked about the old stuff or that reminded me why I liked it in the first place. But there are also many details that just didn’t feel right. Honor is all we know, then, is like they would make another Indy movie with Harrison Ford. One that does most things right (and doesn’t include Shia LaBouef or aliens) – but, of course, also one that makes us realize that Harrison Ford will never be a 40-year-old Indiana Jones again. 


The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute

Car Tapes Review of The Songs of Tony Sly
No Use for a Name frontman Tony Sly died in July 2012. A little over a year later, his former record label, Fat Wreck Chords, put together this compilation of friends and label mates paying homage to one of punkrock’s great songwriters. The album is both sad and exciting – and it brings back good memories.

In the fall of 1994 (a year that figures prominently in discussions of  punkrock in the Nineties), three friends and I got together and started a band called Trick or Treat. We practiced every Saturday, played a handful of shows, and mainly just enjoyed hanging out. One of the two or three cover songs we played was No Use for a Name’s “Straight from the Jacket.” We recruited my brother to do the “Tell me how it feels” part when we played it live. He held his nose when he sang it, so that it would sound like on the CD. After all, covering a No Use for a Name song and trying to sound like them was a way to participate in the magic that punkrock held for all of us.

When Tony Sly died in July 2012, I immediately thought back to our band back then. Incidentally, “Straight from the Jacket” was also the first song I heard from The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute. It’s probably my emotional connection to that song, but Alkaline Trio’s version is one of the highlights of the album. They make it entirely their own – and its drawn-out rhythm, instrumentation, and melancholic feel not only underline the intensity of that song but also emphasize the great songwriting behind it. When we covered “Straight from the Jacket,” somehow it never occurred to us that we could play the song anything other than exactly like the original – something we apparently have in common with Bad Religion, whose rendition of “Let it slide” on this album is so unimaginative it feels like a semi-talented high school band trying (and failing) to emulate their favorite band. Strung Out also follow the original song  (“Soulmate”) pretty closely, but they do in a way that shows that they know exactly what they’re doing – and they do it really well.

A lot of the other bands on here take a slow song and make it fast (NOFX, Lagwagon, Pennywise, The Flatliners, Anti-Flag, etc.), with a few doing the opposite (Rise Against, Jon Snodgrass, Joey Cape, Brain Wahlstrom). Of course, these two approaches more or less represent Tony Sly’s own way of doing cover songs – just think of the punkrock versions of “Redemption Song” or “Fairytale of NewYork” or the acoustic renditions of his own songs on the split album with Joey Cape. So whether or not these approaches are original is kind of beside the point. And in most cases, they work pretty well. NOFX’s version of “The Shortest Pier” is done masterfully and one of my favorites on the album. And Rise Against’s stripped down “For Fiona” is definitely one of the emotional highlights.

It gets perhaps most interesting when the songs don’t really sound like the original anymore. Karina Denike’s version of “Biggest Lie” – like  Alkaline Trio’s “Straight from the Jacket” – is  just awesome. Old Man Markley’s honky tonkification of “Feel Good Song on the Year” turns the song into something entirely new. On the other hand, I think that Snuff’s calypso version of “On the Outside” takes away from the emotional intensity of what is one of my favorite No Use songs and Simple Plan’s turning of “Justified Black Eye” (a song about domestic violence), into a radio-ready reggae song is kind of strange – although it shows what a great song the original is.

As on most tribute albums, you could argue about the song selection (I would have loved to hear “The Daily Grind,” “The Saddest Song,” and “Room 19”) or the artists participating. It would have been nice to move a little bit outside the Fat Wreck box. I wonder what bands from different backgrounds would have done with Tony Sly’s songs (Neurosis or Rihanna, for example). Ultimately, though, this is a nice collection that reconnected me with a lot of the bands I liked in the Nineties. A collection that takes me back to that time twenty years ago when I swore to myself never to miss a concert again (after missing the last Nirvana show ever in Munich). A time when we went to shows, traded new CDs, and proudly sported shirts of our favorite bands. When music defined who we were. That the album doesn’t entirely turn into a trip down nostalgia lane is not simply due to the fact that almost half of the songs on it are from Tony Sly’s 2008 and 2010 solo releases – it’s perhaps mainly because this album shows how strong Tony Sly’s songwriting was and how timeless his songs are.