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A first listen to Rancid's 'Let the Dominoes Fall'

April 6, 2009 |  5:35 pm

RANCID__ Rancid never gets enough credit for writing really great love songs. The veteran East Bay punk band's lengthy career has seen plenty of thrash and spittle on its albums, but they're always leavened with more tender tunes such as "Corazon de Oro" off "Life Won't Wait" and "She's Automatic" from "... And Out Come the Wolves."

Rancid's forthcoming seventh album, "Let the Dominoes Fall," is, upon a first listen this afternoon at the Epitaph offices in Silver Lake, an album of love songs. That doesn't mean it's sonically anemic or overly flowery, or that co-frontman Tim Armstrong's time in the pop trenches softened him up.

On the contrary, six years after the band's last album, "Indestructible," Rancid sounds as vital and in command of its streetpunk-via-smoky dancehall chops as ever. The group's recent stand at the Fonda with new drummer Branden Steineckert underscored this well.

And the love songs on "Dominoes" are odes to many unexpected things -- the city of New Orleans, a brother returning from war, and Rancid's own longevity in a punk scene, one that has ever-shrinking room for bands unwilling to marginalize themselves to a genre or give themselves wholly over to pop.

The first single "Last One to Die," which debuts at 5 p.m. today on KROQ, is both a restatement of purpose and an instant catalog of everything the band has always done right. The mid-tempo intro is brash and clangy, the chorus a gang-call of endearingly slurry vocals from Armstrong and co-frontman Lars Frederiksen.

It's one of a few songs on "Dominoes" clearly meant to reassert Rancid's mission as the band starts looking at its second decade and returns to Armstrong's Hellcat/Epitaph after a brief stint in partnership with Warner Bros. Records. The heady, menacing ska of "I Ain't Worried" has a similar sentiment, and it's almost shocking how good Rancid is at making off-beat upstroke guitars sound completely current every time they cut a record.

The sleeper track on the album looks to be "New Orleans." The song avoids the now-expected laments over the city's fate for a joyful evocation of its pleasures, celebrating its inimitable ambiance and vitality even in continued neglect. Even lines about rain falling all night seem less charged with bibical fury than a kind of pagan celebration.

Folk ballad "Civilian Ways," however, might be the most harrowing yet powerful thing the band has written to date. It's a kind of study in the mind of Armstrong's brother Greg upon his return from military service in Iraq, although the war barely even comes up in the lyrics. Instead, it's about the phantom of returning to ordinary life after war, and how even prosaic pleasures such as fixing cars take on a mythic allure after having seen combat. If Nashville had gotten hold of it first, "Civilian Ways" could have been a mainstream country hit in the hands of a Brad Paisley, but Armstrong's rasp lends it a credibility that both anarchists and interventionist hawks miss out on.

"When we went into Iraq, our country wasn't at war, 150,000 military families were," Armstrong told Pop & Hiss. "It's hard to talk about, so this is my way of telling my family that I love them. When I played this song for my dad, he was in tears."

It's an explicitly personal song that takes unexplored route to a deeply true sentiment. "Dominoes" isn't any retooling of the Rancid sound such as "Life Won't Wait" or 2000's "Rancid." But it might be exactly what the band needs from its much-awaited new record -- 19 songs of fierce, joyful and unexpectedly heartwarming punk.

-- August Brown

Photo: Tim Armstrong of Rancid. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times