The four-piece punk band enjoyed its 15 minutes of rock-star fame when Rancid's 1995 breakthrough ... And Out Come the Wolves launched a couple of actual hit singles, but when a better follow-up album, Life Won't Wait, emerged three years later, it was too late to capitalize. The band was already passé.
But to the extent that Rancid has been eclipsed in their bid for alt-bred commercial success by the likes of Wilco, Radiohead, and their longtime rivals Green Day, it's listeners who have missed out.
Since 1995, Rancid has released four full-length albums, one split CD with SoCal punk scenemates NOFX, and two albums each from side projects the Transplants and Lars Frederiksen & the Bastards, totaling over 140 songs in just over a decade. No band over the same time period has produced as much good music with less hip cachet.
If you bother listening, what stands out immediately about the band is a consistently pleasurable musicality: the way drummer Brett Reed weaves from locomotive force beats to swinging skank and the way bassist Matt Freeman nimbly leaps ahead of the beat, drops into the pocket of the groove, or steps to the side to comment on the action. Danceable at any speed, they might be the most ferocious rhythm section in modern rock music. Up top, singer/guitarists Tim Armstrong and Frederiksen swap garbled vocals and alternately surging and thundering riffs like a two-headed man.
What makes Rancid corny to some listeners is exactly what's so great about them. Despite their relative lack of popularity since ... And Out Come the Wolves, the band's music still bursts with pop energy, as if they can't help themselves -- as if catchy hooks, soaring choruses, and guitar riffs occasionally as light and pretty as Steve Cropper somehow come with the territory of being a stuck-in-place punk band. The result sounds more like a classic-rock band than what most people think of as "punk" but classic rock from a world where punk and reggae/ska have replaced country and blues as foundational elements.
They learned this sound -- and pretty much everything else -- from the Clash. And it's almost comical the way they refuse to deny that influence -- "I'll keep on listing to the great Joe Strummer," Armstrong sings of the late Clash singer on the lead/title track of Rancid's most recent album, 2003's Indestructible, "Cuz through music we can live forever!" But the band long ago ceased being mere mimics. And they certainly aren't the first rock-and-rollers to discover their own voice through imitating others: Just start with the Rolling Stones and work through most other rock bands since.
Ultimately, the band commands a self-contained, instantly reproducible sound like no other contemporary band save another batch of Clash acolytes: their far cooler, West Coast punk sisters Sleater-Kinney. Theirs is the sound of great musicians devoting themselves to each other and their songs instead of showing off, with the communal spirit of the music feeding off the warmth of Armstrong and Frederiksen's songs, which often boast a nostalgic tranquility and reverent camaraderie. This is a band so locked in to each other musically that they seem incapable of making a bad record.
Even if Rancid's never made a bad record, it's still easy to pick their best. Life Won't Wait came too late to capitalize on the band's commercial potential, and as a result, no one really heard it except sympathetic critics and band devotees. But it was one of the best albums of 1998 and sounds every bit as fresh today.
At 22 songs in exactly an hour, it's the band's most expansive album, musically and lyrically. It's their London Calling, basically, and with the same globe-trotting perspective. With its "Hey! Ho!" refrain and blitzkrieg-bop tempo, the album rages out of the gates with "Bloodclot." Though it slows down, it never loses its hooky energy, even with such left turns as "Crane Fist," where acoustic piano and Hammond B-3 organ duke it out underneath some equally effusive vocal interplay, or "Who Would've Thought," which opens with the soft lilt of a Southern soul ballad.
Conceptually, Life Won't Wait offers correspondents' reports from a world gone wrong, musing on the drug-related death of a Salvadoran immigrant on "Hoover Street," the wages of Coca-Colonization in war-torn Eastern Europe on the blistering double shot of "New Dress" and "Warsaw," and offering shout-outs to rude boys and hooligans from Cali to NYC, London to Kingston.
It's the band's only album from the past decade without a lyric sheet, which is appropriate. The band's political songs don't usually stand up to the scrutiny of the page, which is okay, because these are pop songs, not position papers. And they're helped by a lack of certainty. Rather than protest-song stridency, Rancid's best political songs tend to drop the listener in the middle of a bad situation and capture what the effed-up-ness feels like. The world's a mess, and it's in their riffs as much as in their words.