Oakland Calling

Bay city rocker: Rancid's Tim Armstrong

Bay city rocker: Rancid's Tim Armstrong

RANCID EMERGED FROM the slovenly East Bay punk scene in 1994 with the surprise hit "Salvation," a single that sounded kinda, sorta, a smidgen, almost exactly like the Clash. In one short year, however, the band had adapted to the Green Day-driven pop-punk revival then under way with ...And Out Come the Wolves. And, um, they still sounded like the Clash. On 1998's Life Won't Wait, they resurrected their earlier ska and reggae influences, as was the style at the time, and sounded like--well, yeah, the Clash again. But now, with bitch-slapping heavy guitar rock reborn as a vessel for straightforward vitriol and spluttered rage, Rancid have adapted once more and sound like--well, I hate to say it, but Papa Roach.

Ha! Fooled you. Of course they still sound like the Clash. (Duh.) Old comparisons die hard, and Tim Armstrong's Strummer-slurred consonants would keep that name-check in print even if he and his mates didn't give so Clashily anthemic a shout-out to the genocide survivors of Rwanda on their latest disc, Rancid (Hellcat). During the chorus to "Let Me Go," you can hear the spit drenching the microphones on the hard C's as they declaim, "Correction/I need no direction." With producer Brett Gurewitz capturing every drenched plosive, Rancid lovingly cop this sonic move like they're continuing a revered tradition.

When it comes to politics, Rancid make up in breadth what they lack in depth--they walk the talk more than they talk the walk. But same goes for the Clash: When you play guitar for a living, that's always the better route. Listening to the well-intentioned but vague "Rwanda" is no substitute for reading Phillip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. But did you ever try jumping around to a book? Journalism translates tragedy into a written testimony for the victims. Rock overcomes tragedy by embracing the survivors.

In other words, Rancid manage to convey concern and outrage without editing out the fun. Unlike the detailed, articulate broadsheets of the honorable, but often didactic, Rage Against the Machine, Rancid flesh out the meaning of their politics through their music. Which is to say that the songs aren't subsidiary to the message. Does Rancid's "Radio Havana" take a stand on the U.S. embargo of Cuba? Or decry the failure of Third World revolution? After repeated listens (and a close reading of the CD's semi-legible scrawled lyrics), I'm still not sure. But whatever they're saying, I agree.

That's not to say their words don't matter. In fact the band has a verbal gift that allows for a vulnerability and openness that punk rarely embraces without submerging itself in the wallow of emo. Take "Rigged On a Fix," which ends a rather typical anti-television screed with the repeated shout "I've been hypnotized by all of you." By admitting to being sucked into the narcotic fantasies of television, Rancid sound personally affected, not as if they're condescending to mock a hopeless Buffy fan like myself to the point of tears. Even their songs about their girlfriends offer more observation than aggravation: "Black Derby Jacket" eulogizes a failed long-distance relationship with an ambivalent maturity that acknowledges, "I have a new perspective on you."

Thirty-eight minutes and 22 songs later, with no breaks in between, the band not only sounds more sweaty and hoarse, but also wiser. Even at their most stripped-down, Rancid develop a more diverse sonic palette than today's heavy-rock norm (that is, Pretty Hate Machine with a guy at the back of the stage scratching on turntables). What separated the Clash from the Sex Pistols was their insistence that punk did have a future. What separates Rancid from their fellows is their understanding that now punk also has a past.