The Clash they ain't
By Noel Murray
SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:
Rancid, Life Won't Wait (Epitaph)
In 1995, when San Francisco trad-punkers Rancid released ...And Out Come the Wolves, they stated quite boldly that they wanted to make an album "in the spirit of The Clash." Many critics rose to the bait, comparing Wolves to the Clash's classic London Calling; idiot critic Chuck Eddy went so far as to call Wolves the better album, claiming it had more variety. (Morons like Eddy should be stripped of their promo copies.) Now the members of Rancid have upped the ante themselves, calling their new album "our Sandinista!," and even singing the word "Sandinista" during the song "Lady Liberty."
Dial it down a notch, please! The Clash were a band of their time, who in six years and five albums expanded the nascent vocabulary of punk rock to encompass reggae, dub, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley, soul shouting, and, most importantly, politicized anger. Rancid is a tightly wound band of rock history buffs who produce a credible copy of The Clash's core sound, which they combine with winning melodies and with lyrics about their friends and their hangouts. That's not intended as a slam--rock has a great tradition of street vignettes dating back at least to Lou Reed.
At least Rancid knows how to make a joyful noise. In truth, I did experience a blast of nostalgia upon first listening to Life Won't Wait, but it wasn't Joe Strummer and Mick Jones I was remembering fondly. It was Rancid's own ...And Out Come the Wolves, which I listened to frequently a few years ago (but haven't played much since). After a throwaway "Intro," Life Won't Wait launches into "Bloodclot," a fist-pumping hard-rock anthem with lyrics like, "Now my guns are blazing," punctuated by a chorus of shouted "yeah"s. It's a bolt of aggression, recalling the first flowerings of punk, when the music was loud, primitive, and catchy.
From there, Rancid assay their usual blend of raw stompers and danceable ska, which, at 60 minutes of music, may be a bit much. Still, when the sound comes together on tracks like the soaring "Leicester Square" or the horn-driven roundelay "Backslide," the complaints about Rancid's "authenticity" seem petty.
Yes, the band's stabs at rabble-rousing sound shallow and cartoonish, and yes, they wear their influences on their sleeves rather than revealing them in inspired new configurations. But unlike the other gimmicky ska-punkers that have emerged in the past few years, Rancid puts the accent on high-energy rave-ups, not pale imitations. In "new swing" terms, they're the Brian Setzer Orchestra, not the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Rancid's music doesn't reward intense scrutiny, but on an instant-gratification level--when you just need a quick shot of distilled rock--there are few better places to go.
When last we heard from Nova Scotia's premier power-popsters Sloan, they had finally gotten their sublime 1996 album One Chord to Another released on an American label (The Enclave), and they seemed to be one good video away from conquering the U.S. market at last. But the album sank without a trace, The Enclave went bankrupt, and Sloan retreated to Canada to resume the experiments with kitsch-rock pastiche that made One Chord a favorite among the 20 or so yanks who bought it.
Weep not for Sloan, though. In the Great White North, they're a top-shelf act whose albums routinely go gold. Weep instead for their U.S. fan base, who have to count on the good graces of American businessmen if they want to hear some of the most exciting rock music being recorded today. Luckily, Sloan's homegrown label, murderrecords, was able to strike a stateside distribution deal for Navy Blues, the group's latest album. It's a striking artistic leap forward from One Chord to Another, which found Sloan approaching guitar pop as though it were 1978 and they had spent a decade learning from The Beatles, Badfinger, Chicago, and Big Star. Navy Blues betrays those same influences, but the band goes for a heavier sound as well, positioning themselves as contemporaries of Queen, Kiss, Alice Cooper, and the New York Dolls.
What's distinctive about Sloan is that they remain, melodically and structurally, the same band of brainy doofuses who once wrote a sunny pop song based on their foreign fan mail. (Sample lyric: "I have only 14 years/And I am crazy of you.") They still work from a foundation of harmony and clever lyricism, but Navy Blues adds meaty bass lines and Brian May-inspired guitar solos. It's as though The Partridge Family decided to hire Todd Rundgren as a producer. Welcome to prog-pop!
As on the last album, though, the most remarkable characteristic of Navy Blues is the way it sounds so instantly "classic." Some folk'll swear they've heard these songs before. What they're actually hearing is the comforting echoes of rock's past, which Sloan have assimilated into an original work of art. These guys aren't dilettantes--all four members write, sing, and play, and the combination of personalities and tastes imbues Sloan's music with freshness and diversity.
The album's opening track, "She Says What She Means," kicks off with a propulsive guitar run taken straight from Nazz, before launching into screeching harmonies ˆ la ELO. If not for the Elton John-style barrelhouse piano and some nifty production trickery, the sunny "C'mon C'mon" could double as the theme to a Sesame Street short film. "Iggy and Angus" starts off like a dark Black Sabbath anthem before quickly converting to a bouncy, Sweet-esque rocker. "Sinking Ships" plays like an Abbey Road outtake (complete with French horn); "Keep on Thinkin' " brings to mind the Bay City Rollers, if their music had been fuller and brighter; and "Motor City Maniacs" is a catchier, smoother version of Kiss' "Black Diamond."
And those are just the first six songs (out of 13). Later cuts temper the band's raucous pop with cabaret piano rags, acoustic shuffles, mellow cello, and tinkly, Carpenters-like ballads. The lyrics are equally noteworthy, featuring such memorable bits of wordplay as "Have you got another jump I can hoop through?" and "The joke is/When he awoke his/Body was covered in Coke fizz."
Best of all, Navy Blues combines Sloan's raw, exuberant sound with finely crafted songs that are full of surprises--an unexpected change in key, a sudden whoop. These songs aren't designed just to make a good first impression; they're crafted to grow on the listener, and the track selection unfolds in such a way that it encourages us to stay with the album to the end. With Navy Blues, Sloan clearly aimed to make a classic--a record they could count on somebody up there buying. Well, somebody up there is. Now it's time for the people down here to join the party.
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