|Ixnay on the Hombre
The Offspring's gift is an ability to objectify the obvious without completely overstating it, and then to hammer it into your head without shoving it down your throat.
That's no small feat, given the heavy-handed limitations of the Orange County thrash/punk/ska soup the band came out of. But The Offspring, led by semi-professional biology student Dexter Holland, manages to fish itself out of that particular pool enough to keep the basic concept interesting. Like a shark, it would die if it ever stopped swimming, so Holland and company keep the thing moving as fast as they can, taking a bite out of whatever of life's flotsam and jetsam gets in the way.
While there isn't anything as instantly anthemic as ""Come Out and Play"" or ""Self Esteem,"" much of this is substantial enough to stand up to and profit from repeat listens. ""The Meaning of Life"" is basically a breakneck throwaway, despite the ponderous and faux-philosophical title, and the fact that ""Mota"" (marijuana) can lead to catatonia on the couch is no earth-shattering revelation. But the combination gets the disc off to a speedy start.
Ixnay has a clear mantra: ""It's my life and I'll do with it what I want, even if I have no idea what I want."" In ""I Choose"" Holland laments, ""This is life, what a fucked up thing we do, what a nightmare come true,"" and then counters with, ""Or a playground if we choose, and I choose.""
Yet the ""I"" seems collective, an attempt at cultural introspection. ""Me & My Old Lady"" skims the surface of codependence and denial. ""Cool to Hate"" is the album's bumper sticker, a little negative sloganism that's actually as amusing as it is simplistic. (""Leave It Behind,"" however, is simply pissed off.) ""Way Down The Line"" observes that child abuse, teen pregnancy, welfare, and the rest of life's ills are cyclical, the inevitable repeating of the elders' mistakes. It's a grim summation couched in a bouncy little sing-a-long -- a sort of ""Kumbaya"" for the dysfunctional family.
""Amazing"" and ""Change The World"" complete The Offspring's ""cycle of life"" treatise, ending with the admonition that if you can't change the world, change your self. If you wait long enough after the final track you get to hear Calvert DeForest (Larry Bud Melman) suggest that the band try heavy metal, and to kiss his ass.
Hombre isn't brain surgery, but it isn't a simple lanced boil either. The punk is pop and the lyrics are metaphor-free. Perhaps this is easy listening O.C. style.
Call them the Nine Inch Nails of punk. Like NIN, the Offspring preserve the essential ingredients of their chosen genre--guitars grinding out three chords, shouted vocals, and plenty of vitriol--and layer them over a melodic base that packs considerable popular appeal. The singles from Smash, the Offspring's breakthrough album, still receive considerable radio airplay: "Gotta Get Away," "Come Out and Play," and "Self Esteem." With these and Smash's 11 other tracks, the band chronicles the adolescent experience with clarity and surprisingly incisive wit.
Every generation of high schoolers needs a band to express the angst and agony specific to 14-to-18-year-olds. At present, that band is the Offspring. Their songs are aimed squarely at a younger crowd, from "The Meaning of Life" to "Leave It Behind" to "I Choose," and especially "All I Want" and "Change the World". Their occasionally insightful lyrics are anything but obscure, which is actually refreshing; there's real pain behind "Gone Away," and "Way Down the Line" taps into the common fear among the younger crowd of turning out just like our parents. Musically, the Offspring are hardly complex, but then complexity isn't a requirement. This is music to play at full volume, bang your head to, and annoy your neighbors. Cool.
The Offspring is not a great band, and Americana is not a great album. Lead singer Dexter Holland and the boys form sort of an average, punky rock and roll band with a knack for knocking out a couple of songs that really catch on through a ""gimmick"" of some sort, but when you listen to the rest of the material, it doesn't hold up that well.
On its fifth album, the band follows the same formula that catapulted its breakthrough record, 1994's Smash, to sales of over eight million copies … unheard-of for a punk band before then. On Americana, there's a lot of fast, hardcore-style tunes, interspersed with two or three gimmicky pop tunes seemingly tailor-made as singles. Although it's unlikely that anyone ever dreamed that Smash's ""Come Out and Play"" would become the monster hit it eventually became, The Offspring probably wrote the two ""novelty"" songs on Americana with massive radio airplay in mind.
Make no mistake, ""Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)"" and ""Why Don't You Get A Job?"" are both ridiculously catchy songs -- so catchy that even if you don't like them, you can't help singing them (trust me, I've had the ""give it to me baby"" line from ""Pretty Fly"" running through my head for a month now). Lyrically, Holland easily taps into the feelings of his core audience -- we all know someone who's a gangsta wannabe, like the hopeless geek in ""Pretty Fly,"" and we've all known the kind of people described in ""Why Don't You Get A Job?"" Holland is adept at painting a concise little picture of the kind of misguided folks we meet every day.
On the rest of the album, his words tend to follow the standard, generic discontent that's filled many a punk lyric sheet over the years. The music is pretty generic, too: lots of unimaginative riffs, tempos that alternate between fast and faster, and Holland's vocals, which tend to sound strained because of his limited range.
The last two songs on the album offer some hope: the title track, while still a blazing punk tune, combines a catchier hook than usual with some fluid guitar work, while ""Pay The Man"" is a real departure, a slower-paced, six- minute epic that finds Holland trying some new vocal modes while the band weaves through an almost Zeppelin-esque arrangement. Maybe this means that the Offspring will continue to improve as songwriters and musicians, and not be so reliant on those cutesy (but oh so catchy) gimmick songs. Now that would be pretty fly.
Conspiracy of One
It is ironic that musicians so firmly rooted in the past seem to be at the center of today's digital downloading controversies. (As one of the most-downloaded bands, the Offspring support fans' right to share files, and the group planned to offer all of Conspiracy of One's tracks as free MP3s on their website before their record company balked.) But as musicians, these men don't really represent music's future (you'd have to strain hard to hear a drum machine or synth here) as much as they epitomize the past.
Despite their retro stylings, this Orange County, California band has served up a sixth album that is better (by leaps and bounds) than the punk-by-numbers that dominated their first two albums, 1989's Offspring and '93's Ignition. Further, Conspiracy has more well-written, hook-laden songs than anything found on their fluke indie hit, '94's fittingly titled Smash, or their too-boring-to-be-a-sell-out 1997 major label debut, Ixnay on the Hombre.
On the lead track, ""Come Out Swinging"", Greg Kriesel's blast furnace bass line and Dexter Holland's and Kevin Wasserman's ragin' full-on guitars congeal to create a song unmistakably theirs. The group takes the song's title quite literally, as they burst out of the sonic gates at top speed, careening through two minutes and 47 seconds of speedy, angst-in-your-pants energy. ""Don't turn away/ Don't turn away/ Come out swinging/ Out on your own,"" howls Holland over double-time drums and a catchy cacophony of noise. The song's music is reminiscent of 7 Seconds and other SoCal punks who influenced the Offspring, and as a whole their new album doesn't stray much from what we've come to expect from these corporate punk rockers.
The sense of playfulness found on recent hits such ""Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)"" permeates the proceedings. A good example is Conspiracy's first single, ""Original Prankster"", which features Latin-influenced percussion and horns buried beneath a simple garage-punk riff that push Holland's rap-sung nonsense a little bit further down the musical road. His caffeine-dada lyrics sound like they were written by Allen Ginsberg after a steady diet of Jolt Cola and junk TV: ""Tag team the double header/ Son of Sam/ fire always makes it better/ Navigate/ With style and aplomb.""
""Want You Bad"" is power-pop is at its best, rocking the Casbah, shakin' it up and beating on the hi-hat with Ramones-worshipping glee. Other highlights include the powered-by-sugar-rocket-fuel ""Million Miles Away"" and ""Special Delivery"", the latter of which samples the ""ooga chacka ooga chacka"" chant from Blue Swede's 1974 hit, ""Hooked on a Feeling.""
Still, despite their improved songwriting and minor experiments in sound, by the end of this album it seems as though we're hearing variations of the same two tracks: the goofy radio song and the earnest but generic rawk song. Many bands have forged a successful career by repeating themselves, but it seems that, while the Offspring have much to offer, they are squandering it on the safeness and sameness of formula.
-Sonicnet's Kembrew McLeod