Rancid may have started on the streets and in the septic tanks with songs about fistfights in cemeteries and bumming change from squares, but they took that shtick as far as it could possibly go. And now—thanks in part to monolithic label Epitaph—they're livin' large, trading in their BART fare for Volkswagen Jettas.
And now that the gutter is just the place where they put their recycling in the morning, what are they going to sing about? Maybe Joey Ramone can pull off an ode to CNBC business anchor/analyst Maria Bartiromo, but what's Rancid going to find to rhyme with “fixed-rate mortgage”?
We wonder, because recently—say, since 1995—they've been pretty quiet. Yeah, there were a couple of albums between then and now, but nothing that hit the turntables as hard as they used to. After they had a hit with “Salvation,” a song about collecting junk in wealthy neighborhoods for the Salvation Army, and released their best record . . . And Out Come the Wolves, Rancid's peacock-style mohawks and sneering mugs began to show up on such not-so-punk magazine covers as Details. Punkers who live with their parents will be the first to tell you this is what's known as selling out. But Rancid spent their first couple of albums singing sincerely about the dead-broke, safety-pin-and-Cisco, Salvation-Army-dependent, NyQuil-chuggin' lifestyle from whence they came. How they fell in with the whole Green Day, punks-on-MTV phenomenon is somewhat of a mystery.
But that's when things got confusing. Rancid traded in their sound for a stab at being Son of the Clash, a characterization that only really came true after they released Life Won't Wait, their stab at rootsy, Jamaican-style ska, which was a failure along the lines of Sandinista! And then for their last self-titled record, they ditched the ska and went back to ragged piss-and-vomit punk rock. But by then, all their teenybopper fans had long since moved on to piercing their eyebrows and extreme boogieboarding, and every time you saw a Rancid ad on a bus shelter in Huntington Beach, you felt a little sad and nostalgic, at least until they covered it up with a poster for the new Sum 41 album.
So here's their first release in two years—their chance to make bold artistic strides, to reinvent themselves and hold on to something like relevance—and what do they do? A split CD with fellow high-profile punks NOFX, on which each band covers the other and has a fun ol' time playing songs they didn't write. NOFX take the project less seriously, adding Fat Albert's infamous, “Hey, hey, hey!” to Rancid's “I'm the One.” But the Rancid boys are seemingly incapable of irony or humor, and they play it straight on some of NOFX's silliest songs—like “Don't Call Me White” and the Jew-punk pit anthem “Brews.”
But Rancid's originals—even when played by NOFX—often come off as, well, poignant. They have a way of describing happiness, loneliness and typical teenage awkwardness in a sort of down-and-out, hard-knock fashion that rings simple and true. That's how they originally connected with their audience of bored and bummed-out kids. Too bad that audience is still bored—and shrinking. And as they've gotten older and fatter, NOFX have continued to write relatively clever songs about overly hip parents and not having to go to work on Mondays, but poor Rancid—still proudly spiking up their hair in 2002—seem a bit lost.
Rancid and NOFX perform at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Thurs., April 18, 8:30 p.m. $17.50—sold out. All ages.