MUSIC: John Reviews “Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace” by The Offspring

Let me begin by admitting my own personal bias:  I am a man who loves his Offspring records.  Ixnay on the Hombre is one of my all-time favorite punk rock records, and serves two purposes in my day-to-day life: It encourages me to drive dangerously fast when I’m running late, and it is my second favorite record to put on while cleaning (just behind the Katamari Damacy soundtrack.)  I’ve been listening to Dexter, Noodles and the rest of the gang since I bought Americana in middle school, but overall I’ve been a bit disappointed with the “gimmicky” sound that has garnered them so much fame since “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” first appeared on the charts.  “Original Prankster” and “Hit That” were even worse, but thankfully their respective albums each had their share of stellar tracks to make up for such terrible (yet somehow radio-friendly) garbage.

As you can imagine, I was skeptical when I saw posters advertising the band’s latest release, Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace. Would this be another entry in the long line of mainstream junk hits, or would it be a return to The Offspring’s glory days of Smash and Ixnay?  It turns out that it’s not exactly either, but it’s both innovative enough and familiar enough to warrant a listen if you’ve ever liked the band.

R&FR&G opens with “Half-Truism,” an  anthemic track that has a similar feel in some respects to Splinter‘s opening track, “Neocon.”  “Half-Truism” is what I would call arena punk rock: It’s got that characteristic Offspring attitude and energy during the verses, but the chorus practically begs for fans to whip out their lighters and cheer along in unison.  That said, the lyrics are quite fun and memorable, especially the chorus: “If we don’t make it alive, it’s a hell of a good day to die / a light that shines strong only lasts for so long.”

From here we move into very familiar territory with “Trust In You,” which brings back the standard breakneck punk rock pace that Offspring fans have come to know and love.  Unfortunately, this similarity to so many other Offspring songs is also the song’s biggest detriment.  Were it not for the fresh message in the lyrics – a defiant song about wanting to be strong enough to sustain oneself in order to trust in others – the song would be purely mediocre.

“You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid,” appears to be the radio hit of the album, and for once I agree with whoever made that arbitrary decision.  It’s a very different sound for the band, and sports an almost cardio-kickboxing-esque beat/rhythm/tempo.  Until you get to the chorus, which is back to what Offspring does best: fast, kinetic punk rock.  The song is catchy as heck without resorting to cheesiness (e.g. “Pretty Fly”), but the radio version is decidedly neutered.  The most fun line of the chorus is “Dance, f***er, dance,” yet it’s appropriate enough to be censored for radio (not that I’m complaining.  I was thrilled to hear the song on K-Rock this weekend!)

“Hammerhead” is the first song on the album that I would recommend to the fans who stopped listening after “Pretty Fly.”  This is pre-gimmick Offspring, to be sure, and more memorable than “Trust In You.”  The lyrics seem to be from a soldier’s perspective, possibly in Iraq.  Certainly, their talk of “When will it end? nobody knows” could be referring to our military occupation.  Dexter even borrows from Psalm 23 at one point, for all you fans of Biblical writings out there.

“A Lot Like Me” is the first slow song (of three) on the album, but I would argue that it’s the most forgettable.  It has a bit of a darker tone than the two I’ll be discussing later, but it does sound a bit reminiscent of “Gone Away” without the emotional depth.  Oddly, I might even go so far as to say it reminds me of Staind’s musical style.

“Takes Me Nowhere” is almost a second start for the album, the “B” side with the better songs.  This is more on Offspring’s rock side than its punk side, but definitely stands as one of the best-sounding (in terms of production quality) songs the band’s ever done.  Dexter’s voice (and the band’s instrumentation in general) has come a long way since Smash.

“Kristy, Are You Doing Okay?” is the second slow song, this time an acoustic piece about an abused and heavily depressed girl.  Maybe I’m a sucker for this type of song from bands that aren’t known for their emotional depth, but I think the sincerity of the band shines through in this track.  It never felt forced or fake, in other words.  I hope Kristy is doing okay.

“Nothingtown” is bouncy and fun pop-punk for suburban kids who dream of leaving their small towns and doing something with their lives.  Hey, they know their audience!  The Offspring have leaned toward a poppy sound with some of their tracks as far back as Ixnay, and some of them have been favorites of mine (“Want You Bad” springs to mind).  This is about as light-hearted as the band gets on this album, since there is (thankfully) an absence of gimmicky garbage.

“Stuff Is Messed Up” is another attack on the drek we consider important in this web 2.0, reality TV-obsessed, Botox-injecting world.  I enjoy lyrics like “I think we’re losing this fight, Sponsored by Bud Light” and “Thank God for the media, who’re saving the day / putting it all into perspective in a responsible way.”  Don’t act shocked: They’ve been ripping into our materialistic obsessions since they were bragging about not being a trendy ***hole in “Smash.”  NOTE: The uncensored version of this song should really be called “S*** is F***ed Up”, based on the lyrics.

“Fix You” is my favorite of the three slow songs, mostly because the emotion seems to come through most clearly on it.  It’s a touching song about wanting to repair the physical and emotional damage a loved one has suffered, even though that’s more than any one person (who isn’t both a physician and a therapist) can do.  I like the lyrics “She sees a million stars like holes in the sky / all God’s tears, for her they cry / and I am in her rain”.  It doesn’t sound pretentious when set to music, I swear.

“Let’s Hear It For Rock Bottom” is a song about being out of luck and out of hope, and deciding to just get thoroughly trashed.  We’ve all had those moments, haven’t we?  Well, it’s surprisingly happy and jump-inducing for such a depressing subject matter.  I guess it doesn’t have to be a somber time, if you’re partying right.

The album closes with “Rise and Fall,” possibly the most entertaining track as well as being the most true to The Offspring’s older sound.  Blending the bouncy fun of pop-punk with the unrelenting pace and punch-your-neighbor attitude of real punk rock, this seems like it will be a crowd favorite when the band takes it on tour.  Heck, I want to get up and start running and jumping around like a crazy person right now!  I really think this song should have been earlier on the album.  It’s too good for people to miss!

Well, there you have it.  A mixed bag, to be sure, but it’s definitely a huge leap forward from the disappointments that were Conspiracy of One and Splinter. If this is the start of a resurgence in The Offspring’s trademark sound, we’re all in for a whole lot of fun (and a few bumps and bruises.)  Even if you don’t end up buying it, be sure to check out some of the standout tracks: “Rise and Fall,” “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid,” “Takes Me Nowhere,” “Nothingtown,” and “Fix You.”

BREAKDOWN

PROS: The Offspring have returned (more or less) to their old sound!  No more synth-quacks or Redman guest appearances!  Check out “Rise and Fall,” “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid,” “Takes Me Nowhere,” “Nothingtown,” and “Fix You.”

CONS: Not all songs on the album are created equal.  “Trust In You,” “A Lot Like Me,” and “Let’s Hear It for Rock Bottom” are kinda mediocre.

RATING: 7.5/10  (mixed, contains both great and disappointing songs)

SOUNDS LIKE: Previous albums Americana and Ixnay on the Hombre, touches of early Blink 182 – type pop punk (but with a far superior singer/composer.)  Wanna find out for yourself? You can listen to the album for free on The Offspring’s web site!

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