The Offspring "Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace" (Columbia) * * *

YOU EXPECT a band to show some new twists when it returns from a four-year absence, and in its first album since 2003, the Offspring obliges. "Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace" (released today) has plenty of brisk, sharp rock, both punk and beyond, but there are also atmospheric interludes and moments of folkish, emo-like reflection.

The veteran Orange County band also has a new producer, Bob Rock, who's moved over from the Metallica account and so might be held responsible for the ominous, metal-tinged ballad "A Lot Like Me."

Of course, the Offspring has never stayed snugly in the punk cubicle it initially was assigned. Such hits as "Come Out and Play," "Self Esteem" and "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" bristled with hooks and twitches and dynamics foreign to the punk playbook, and the band's knack for the catchy resulted in refrains that stuck like schoolyard taunts and lifted like stadium chants.

"Rise and Fall" works best when it emphasizes those features. "Let's Hear It for Rock Bottom," "Stuff Is Messed Up," "You're Gonna Go Far, Kid" and "Nothingtown" are the prime vehicles for the Offspring's engaging dynamism, while the band (joined by guest drummer Josh Freese for the second straight album) is flashing an increasing pop-anthem quality that brings it close to Cheap Trick's hallowed ground.

"Hammerhead," in which images of a soldier's battlefield maneuvers bleed into a scenario of a campus shooting spree, is the strongest lyric on an album that gives more time than usual to personal introspection. There are also expressions of frustration and discontent in the tradition of the Offspring's legacy of well-observed social commentary, but the absence of its satirical, semi-novelty edge leaves things a little sober.

The album tends to sag in the middle, and as for those gentler moments, well, one for two isn't bad ("Kristi, Are You Doing Okay?" is OK). The Offspring has earned the chance to stretch, but when it comes to this band and sentimental soft-rock, you gotta keep 'em separated.

--Richard Cromelin




Why not leave it to the pros?

2 Pistols "Death Before Dishonor" (Universal Republic)

*

WITH Young Jeezy and Rick Ross littering the walls of Def Jam headquarters with platinum plaques, it was only a matter of time before the other big boys scooped up their own d-boy doppelgängers. Accordingly, consider 2 Pistols, Universal Republic's variant on the recipe: two-dimensional drug dealer tropes, stadium-sized synths slapped together by producers-of-the-moment, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, monotonous ad-libs, freebase, serve.

The bet seems to have paid off somewhat with 2 Pistols' lead single, the T-Pain-aided "She Got It," in the top 25 of the Billboard 100. However, as a cohesive listening experience, few albums in recent major-label memory are as dull or derivative as "Death Before Dishonor."

In his album bio, Pistols might boast about being one of the few Tampa natives to bump Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, but judging from his debut's leaden crawl, one would gather that his influences start and stop with the aforementioned trappers turned rappers du jour.

From the faux-courtroom saga that kicks things off to the JV Jeezy ad-libs that pepper its nearly hourlong run time, not only has every idea on the album been done before, it's been done better. .

--Jeff Weiss

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released.