October was an interesting month in punk music, a weird throwback to the era of the late ’80s and early ’90s when the genre saw a mainstream resurgence in the early days of MTV. On Oct. 7, Philadelphia’s The Dead Milkmen released their new album Pretty Music For Pretty People, followed a couple of weeks later by a return of Berkeley’s Rancid with Honor Is All We Know. These are two albums produced by very different band and yet they stand as an interesting comparison of how old punk rockers attempt to maintain their relevance after being around for more than 20 years.
It might sound petty, but Rancid gets off to a bad and weirdly indicative start by making the cover to their eighth album consist of a green stencil of a bass and two guitars in front of a black background. It looks like a flier you’d get for a friend’s basement punk show, not the new release for a band that’s sold over four million records worldwide. It’s also a little off-putting when you start listening to the first track, “Back Where I Belong,” and realize that the lyrics remind you, again and again, that this is indeed another Rancid album.
To be fair, it feels like the entire collection is operating on an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of model. Rancid’s best early hits, such as “Time Bomb” and “Root Radical,” were anthems that created a neat blend of hardcore and pop-punk: fast and angry, yet still fun and catchy. Honor Is All We Know is definitely trying for the same feel, diving into each song with some heavy guitar power chords, overlaid with truly skillful bass work. The problem with just about every song, however, becomes apparent once this fun overture gives way to the real meat of the track.
Take, for example, the second track, “Raise Your Fist.” As the bass and drums slowly build up the rhythm, and the guitar riff picks up the speed of the song, it seems like some decent head banging fun. But then the lyrics kick in, revolving entirely around the repeated phrase, “Raise your fists/ against the power that exists.” Rancid’s never exactly been poetic, but at least songs like “Ruby Soho” had a catchy and original energy. This new batch of songs feels like the band’s trying way too hard to recapture its rebellious spirit, with vague calls for revolution based on groundbreaking claims like “politicians are insane.” I’m not expecting Tim Armstrong, the band’s frontman, to be the next Karl Marx, but when almost every song on the album is preaching these nonsensical calls to action, the whole thing feels like a parody of itself.
Listen to enough songs, and the entire album starts to blend together. Some tracks do stand out, but they feel like they’re just missing something. “Already Dead” and “Grave Digger” try for a psychobilly feel, only without the sweet standing bass riffs or the manic sense of humor that makes the subgenre so much fun. “Evil Is My Friend” and “Everybody’s Suffering” both have a nice ska sound to them, but you still wish for an alternative to Armstrong’s gravelly wail. The band doesn’t have the energy to liven things up, and the album is boring as a result.
Just like Rancid, the Dead Milkmen also fall back on the spirit of what’s worked in the past. For them, it’s a tone of complete and total irreverence. However, the band manages to propel its satirical energy with enough experimentation to achieve a unique variety in its new songs.
The album’s titular opening track begins with a bizarre circus calliope, accompanied by a frantic drumbeat and Rodney Linderman’s manic vocals. As soon as the opener concludes, we jump to more of a surf-rock sound with the track “Big Words Make the Baby Jesus Cry.” The guitar and bass on the song coordinate on a riff pulled right out of something by the B-52’s.
Some songs try to stick with the frantic and angry pace that characterized much of their earlier work. The tracks “Now I Wanna Hold Your Dog” and “Ronald Reagan Killed The Black Dahlia” are fast, short, and sweet, blurting out crazy phrases like, “You call it class warfare/ but I call it love!” But these balance out with slower, New Wave-inspired pieces such as “Somewhere Over Antarctica,” which combines slow, haunting guitar riffs and an echoing synth mix for the strange Lovecraftian story of an Arctic explorer fleeing his crazed crew.
Admittedly, the experimentation on the album doesn’t always work perfectly. While the keyboard riffs do give some songs a nice retro feel, in “Welcome To Undertown,” the wail goes a little overboard. It doesn’t help that the song is already a little jarring in the way it tries to address gun control. The album achieves its high point when it actually tones down its crazed creative energy in “Dark Clouds Over Middlemarch.” Compared to some of the more insane tracks, this song manages to get the job done with some nimble bass-playing, sweeping guitar riffs, and Lindeman’s vocals, all of which just pop with energy.
Ultimately, the reason Pretty Music for Pretty People succeeds as an album runs parallel to the reasons why Honor Is All We Know doesn’t. There’s a particular kind of sound that Rancid is just trying so hard to reclaim: the same angry and anarchy-inspired anthems to inspire another generation of Doc Martens-lacing, suspender-wearing, angry punks. The Dead Milkmen, on the other hand, are trying to capture more of a feeling: the reckless abandon of not taking anything too seriously. They might be trying hard to please a fan base, but in the process they made a damn fine piece of punk music.