ALBUM REVIEWS : Through the Past Starkly With the Offspring
The Offspring were just unknown small fry in the tiny pond of punk rock back in 1990, when “The Offspring” emerged on vinyl as the band’s first album-length calling card. Five years, two more albums and more than 6 million in sales later, the Offspring are one of the biggest fish in a punk pond whose commercial shores it helped widen in 1994-95 beyond anything scene observers could have dreamed possible when “The Offspring” came out on a tiny Long Beach label, Nemesis Records.
Singer-songwriter Dexter Holland and mates subsequently made big leaps in craftsmanship and melodic knack on both their 1992 release, “Ignition,” and their ’94 breakthrough, “Smash.” But the previously out-of-print “The Offspring,” which was issued this week on CD for the first time by Holland’s custom label, Nitro Records, should be worth a look back for fans who like the attitude and abandon of hard-core punk and can do without some of the melodic seasoning that later helped the Offspring hit it big.
The songs are unchanged from the original LP, but the appealingly gross original album cover, a drawing inspired by the big-bellyache scene from the film “Alien,” has been ditched in favor of something more moody and impressionistic, but a good deal less memorable. Perhaps now that the Offspring have deep pockets, they don’t want to invite any legal claims from the producers of “Alien.”
Going on the theory that first impressions are best, we’ve reached back five years into the archives to reprint the original Times review of “The Offspring” that ran Nov. 29, 1990:
“It’s obvious whose offspring these Cypress-based punks are. On a few songs, the band races in the footsteps of 1981-vintage T.S.O.L., with razor-like guitar lines, drawled, theatrical vocals and plenty of alienation in the lyrics (it may be more than coincidence that the Offspring enlisted Thom Wilson, producer of early T.S.O.L. and Adolescents tracks, to record this album). ‘Beheaded,’ a slasher-film fantasy that’s funnier than it is gross (and it’s pretty gross), strongly echoes the sensibility of that old T.S.O.L. farcical horror number, ‘Code Blue.’
“On the sociopolitical side, the defiantly pacifist Offspring are far more acute than T.S.O.L. ever was. ‘Tehran,’ which predates the Iraqi crisis, is a chilling, all-too-current vision of America at war in the Middle East: ‘The captain said, “Kill or die/Islam be damned/Make your last stand in Tehran.” ’ Only the geography is a little off on this potentially prophetic anti-war number. The tumbling beat and twisting Middle Eastern guitar figures make this the album’s most interesting piece musically.
“Another song, ‘Kill the President,’ keeps alive the old punk tradition of agitating and provoking through blunt overstatement. It’s obvious that the Offspring don’t condone assassination, and those willing to listen beyond the provocative title will find that the song has a significant point to make about the threat an imperial presidency poses to democratic rule. Hey, guys, let us know if the FBI comes calling.
“When not honoring their early O.C. punk roots, the Offspring also play the more up-to-date, pop-inflected style of punk typical of All and Big Drill Car, although both of those bands are far more adept at giving their songs melodic lift.
“Overall, the Offspring’s debut album plows through already-tilled territory and tends toward musical sameness. But it also shows a promising spark of intelligence.”
High Speed Media
When they’re good, these five veterans of the Southern California punk/alternative scene serve up a searing, explosive but honed re-creation of the O.C. hard-core punk sound of 15 years ago. When they’re bad, they’re awful, which doesn’t happen until the homestretch, when they run out of ideas and hooky song structures. Play the first 10 tracks, skip the final four, and you’ve got something to get pumped up about.
If Rancid is the new Clash, Humble Gods position themselves as the new Adolescents. Singer Brad Xavier (or Brad X, as he’s known here) often comes close to replicating the bratty, Brit-inflected snarl of unbridled wrath that Tony Montana mustered on “Adolescents,” the Ads’ brilliant 1981 debut album. Passages abound in which massed guitars surge along rising chordal paths, like a jet speeding down a runway at takeoff. Pummeling beats and catchy hollered refrains are other featured attractions. Humble Gods can race like the blazes, but unlike some less savvy hard-and-fast punk bands, it knows that it’s necessary to slow the beat to experience the highest levels of hard-rock heaviness.
The experienced lineup includes former Descendents and Dag Nasty member Doug Carrion and Ricky (Vodka) Gaez on guitars, Spike Xavier on bass (the former front man of the semi-retired O.C. metal band Mind Over Four is now playing alongside his younger brother) and drummer Lou Gaez, Ricky’s brother and Brad X’s former band mate from Doggy Style.
The songs, in standard hard-core punk fashion, cast a baleful eye on the contemporary social scene. It’s telling of our times that, in 1981, the Adolescents’ wrath was directed largely at punk-hating factions who tended to inflict beatings on the punker set; a decade and a half later, punkdom is not a persecuted minority, but fear of violence remains a recurring theme. Now, in songs such as “Concrete Jungle” (a cover of a song by the pioneering British ska-revival band, the Specials), “Break It Up,” “Animal” and “Killer at Large,” Humble Gods decry the exponentially worse forms of lethal street violence that dominate today’s headlines.
In an interesting bit of byplay midway through the album, writers Brad X and Carrion issue a sardonic indictment of their own band mate’s boozing, self-destructive habits, specifically directing an unprintably titled number at the apparently aptly nicknamed Ricky Vodka: “I try not to judge/He’s such a slimy slug,” Xavier sings in a wry but pointed tone of voice. Then, on the next song, “High Speed,” Vodka gets a chance to reply as a songwriter, using Xavier as his mouthpiece. He doesn’t try to excuse his excesses; the song, about a life hurtling out of control, is half defiant, and half a helpless plea.
Humble Gods show an admirable grasp of Southern California rock history by covering “My Little Red Book,” replaying, in crunching fashion, Love’s 1966 version of the Burt Bacharach song. The track turns the subject to romance (or, more precisely, frustrated desires), a change of pace from the band’s social concerns. It also pays homage to the first band that showed, in one of its many stylistic guises, how to hurtle and slam in a way that such younger Southland brethren as X, the Adolescents and Black Flag would take up years later. Humble Gods’ debut shows that, while there’s nothing new under the punk rock sun, it still can give off plenty of heat.
(For Humble Gods information, write the band at P.O. Box 694, Brea, 92622, or call  563-5605.)
* Humble Gods, the Neighborhoods and War Called Peace play Wednesday at 9 p.m. at the Strand, 1700 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-1700.
A Smashing Atomic Boy
Atomic Boy’s cocktail tastes familiar, but it’s a heady, enlivening brew nonetheless.
This Orange County/Los Angeles band plays blitzing, 1977-style punk-rock anthems with rousing, sing-along choruses. Front man Denny Lake sings with the husky (husker?) emotionalism of Bob Mould and gets his cutting snarl--more urgent than sarcastic--from vintage Johnny Rotten. These influences come together to form an uncommonly passionate bark.
On the surface, the songs seem simplistic as Lake calls again and again for an end to apathy and an assertion of idealism and the will to resist the powers that be. But given the true mess that the powers that be seem to be making of things nowadays, and the numbness and fragmentation into which much of the body public has fallen, it’s a message that bears repeating.
Storming the battlements of conformity and convention is the theme of the day in songs such as the self-explanatory “Change Is Gonna Come” and “We Want a Revolution.” “In Your Face” takes a Pistols-like punk-rock Taser to abusive cops.
But, consistently anthem-like as its sound is, Atomic Boy isn’t quite a one-track band, like its label mate, Face to Face. “Debutante,” (which Lake sardonically pronounces debu- taunt) waxes irate about the failings of an upper-crust drug addict and features shifting garage-rock guitar textures that are a bit more complex than the usual punker fare. “Marmalade Fashion Disaster” is a catchy departure into oblique lyric writing that spoofs some of the conventions of hippie-era songwriting.
Ultimately, it’s not so much the meaning carried by the lyrics that hits home, as the unstinting spirit with which Atomic Boy’s members hurl themselves collectively into the fray. The band, which features careening guitarists Strangler and Andrew K, sounds energized, committed, indefatigable. Lake, a spitfire with a heart, leads the charge with the abandon of a true believer.
“Sonic Cocktail” isn’t about subtlety--the musical means are about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail. Nor does it provide any fresh insights. But it gives us an alert, hopeful band capable of whipping itself into a fine lather while not succumbing to mindless anger. The result is invigorating rock that can make a listener want to get up and take on the world.
* Atomic Boy plays 9 p.m. Friday at Thunderbird, 3505 Via Oporto, Newport Beach. $5. (714) 675-6599.