The guys in Rancid are feeling particularly left out these days, which seems a touch disingenuous. Punk rock is about living on the fringe, for chrissakes, and anyone who’s ever tended a mohawk should know as much. Yet it’s hard not to feel for them. As “East Bay punks” who spend little time in Berkeley, who play a lot of Jamaican-influenced songs about living in New York, and who are often dismissed as too derivative of their British forebears, they fit in everywhere and nowhere at once. But at least they’ve got each other, right? A photo on the cover of the band’s latest, Life Won’t Wait, shows Tim Armstrong, the band’s spiritual leader, sitting on a stoop, his now-mohawkless dome sheathed in a cap. Also in the picture is Lars Frederiksen, the band’s vice spiritual leader, and he’s walking by his man Tim as if he’s just another gutter punk. In fact, Lars is walking by so fast he’s a blur.
Since Rancid’s mission has always been to belong as opposed to simply venting or being noticed, the band’s prone to taking the cold, impersonal reality of things very personally. Opportunism has never been Rancid’s bag, career-wise. In the mid-’90s, when the industry groped Rancid in the wake of the Offspring and Green Day, the band balked in the name of street cred. Instead, it stuck with Epitaph and released the ska punk classic …And Out Come the Wolves, which sold decently but was released a good year before anyone but Rancid’s cult really gave a damn. In the three years it took Rancid to put together its follow-up, Gwen Stefani already had had her evil way with pop radio. So just when it thought it might get invited to the VIP lounge, Rancid arrived too smelly, too righteous, and altogether too punk and too ska to be let in the door. “Division is the new world order,” goes the chant in Life Won’t Wait’s title track. “Boo Yaa!”
Boo Yaa? That’s toastmaster general Buju Banton speaking, and if you don’t get what he’s saying, it’s probably because you’ve been buying your riddims on the mainland. Having mastered the punk part of ska punk better than any of its contemporaries, Rancid is musical enough to recognize how unnatural it is for an urban white kid from Cali to really skank. So under the rubric of keeping it real, the band followed the footsteps of the Clash to Kingston to bask in the glow of the masters (namely Banton). The result is the best ska-punk hybrid to emerge since the Specials (whose members guest on “Hooligans”) became a novelty act.
But that’s not all it is. Only a handful of Life’s 22 songs are truly natty. The two-tone shuffle in both “Hooligans” and the title track comes courtesy of more seasoned collaborators. “Cocktails” is probably the purest example of rude boy jammin’, and it owes more to the skills the band members honed playing to demanding skate punks than anything they learned in the Caribbean, if drummer Brett Reed couldn’t hang onto a snaky rhythm and push it sideways, he’d be flipping burgers by now, and Armstrong and Frederiksen have been shouting in call-and-response since they met.
The more compelling chemistry happens elsewhere. If ska was spawned in part by Jamaicans with one ear tuned to ’60s R&B and the other to the sounds of the island, it makes sense that adding something as discordant as Cali-punk to the stew would bring the music halfway home, to Memphis, say, or Detroit. Rancid’s fervid rendition of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” on the Tibetan Freedom Concert live disc makes it worth the 30 bucks, but it’ll take more than a well-intentioned vacation to rewire the band’s angry American heart. “Nobody knows me/I’m all alone,” Armstrong and Frederiksen rasp in “Backslide,” and they use a rumbly organ and a Stax-era horn chart to let you know they mean it.
If anything, Life Won’t Wait (which also includes sessions from New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and L.A.) affirms rootlessness as the band’s peskiest malady. Living on the down-and-out has made it hard for Rancid to feel ambivalent about anything, and world travel has only intensified its dutiful commitment to deliver uplift in anthem form. All of Rancid’s songs are earnest, but given the effort it takes to get them out (try not to rally behind Frederiksen as he shreds a lung at the start of “Leicester Square”), none are corny.
Armstrong’s never written a word he liked enough to enunciate, but on “Hoover Street” he sings about a hooker and a “glass pipe murder” just as sweetly as he can before calling up the skybound guitars and the “Oh yeah” chorus. He’s not celebrating anyone’s misfortune; he’s offering them the tools for flight. Similar gifts are brought to fellow down-and-outers in Poland (“Warsaw”) and Bosnia (“New Dress”). There are even a few love songs. If life won’t wait, it’s got to be somewhere, and Rancid’s not going to miss out on any of it without a chase. In the process, the band seems to have found a way for its music to evolve uncorrupted. Boo Yaa!
Rancid plays the Warped Tour Friday in the RFK Stadium parking lot.