To put it simply, Let the Dominoes Fall is the long-awaited seventh LP of the legendary East Bay, California punk outfit Rancid. Unfortunately, Let the Dominoes Fall is anything but simple.
For those not like this reviewer, and the millions of others who have eagerly been anticipating this release since Tim Armstrong, Lars Frederiksen, Matt Freeman and Brett Reed began “working” on this effort, shortly following the release of 2003’s Indestructible, Let the Dominoes Fall can be best described as punk rock’s version of Chinese Democracy. Anticipation? Long-awaited? Words that sound good, but don’t truly illustrate the angst and restlessness that have besieged all Rancid fans over the last five years.
In the time since the Sandanista-like Indestructible hit record shelves a half decade ago, the band went on a hiatus and reunited, watched as two of its members, Armstrong and Frederiksen, embarked on ambitious (The Transplants) and not so ambitious (Lars Frederiksen & the Bastards) side-projects, toured again, and again, watched as drummer and founding member Brett Reed left, and former Used drummer Branden Steineckert stepped in and received a few lessons in poetry from Mr. Armstrong – all in that order.
Then, in late 2008, the gentlemen of Rancid did something they hadn’t done in five years – they hit the studio, together, with longtime producer Brett Gurewitz, to put to the record the material first written some six years ago. Six months later, the end is finally upon us – a gap which spans five Jack White releases, two presidents and a Phish reunion tour is now over. Rancid has returned.
With what? A 19-track album that can best be described as a culmination of the band’s entire existence. Some would call this jumbled mess of ska, hardcore and pop-punk a 45-minute album that sees three 40-some-things and a kid on drums with no clear cut direction, hoping only to meet the approval of a genre now defined by many sounds and many styles. However, that would be too easy.
For one, Rancid has never done the expected – the contrasting nature of 1995’s …And Out Come the Wolves and 1998’s Life Won’t Wait not only illustrates the band’s experimental willingness, but also is one of the prime reasons the punk genre of today is defined by many sounds and many styles. Then, there’s the fact that it’s very possible this is Rancid’s last studio album – depending on what you read, the band began work on Let the Dominoes Fall anywhere from five years to five months ago. The years of three releases in three years, as was the case between 1993 and 1995, are long gone, and if Rancid’s existence does last another two, even five more years, it will be a touring outfit only.
Taking these points into consideration, one can now better understand what exactly Rancid is doing, and consequently rather than a jumbled mess of ska, hardcore and pop-punk, Let the Dominoes Fall can instead be be described as a compilation of all the sounds, styles and themes that have defined Armstrong and Co. throughout the last 18 years.
Rancid often uses inspiration from prior albums. For example, lead track, “East Bay Night” features the same pop-punk friendly approach heard on the album’s predecessor, Indestructible. In addition, “I Ain’t Worried” from 1998’s Life Won’t Wait is a clever homage to “Junkie Man”, released three years earlier, from …And Out Come the Wolves. However, this is not to say Let the Dominoes Fall isn’t without its own uniqueness, its own redeeming qualities that will have us using it, like every other Rancid album, as a bar of comparison to future punk albums 50 years down the road. “New Orleans” is easily one of the best tracks ever written by the band, because of its ability to offer themes of joy and hope amidst the tragedies of New Orleans, rather than be simply another in a long string of lambasting-Bush songs.
Other highlights include the unifying “Disconnected”, a song which features lead vocal work from Armstrong, Frederiksen and Freeman, a circumstance heard few and far between on Rancid’s discography. “Up to Good” offers some more ska-ful fun, this time courtesy of the inclusion of the legendary Booker T. Jones. “Civilian Ways” hears a stripped down Rancid, another attribute that has rarely appeared during the band’s existence, at least on record, and although it feels out of place, one listen to the song’s topic – the story of Armstrong’s brother Greg from the War in Iraq and alt-country musicality, and one will certainly have trouble disputing its quality.
Is all this to say Let the Dominoes Fall‘s is not without its faults? Of course not. A case can be made about the tracklist’s order, which at times is very questionable. I’m not sure how much sleep anyone would loose if the five minutes making up tracks #11 and #12, entitled “Skull City” and “Lulu” respectively, were to suddenly disappear.
Yet, in the end, the track listing and the one or two overly repetitive numbers become secondary. Some may call it cheesy and others might point to it as just another example of a band that has lost its edge in recent years. Though, the former has always been an element of the band’s music, and punk as a whole, while the latter will be disproved with one thoughtful listen of the album’s previous 18 tracks. For many reasons, “The Highway” proves to be the biggest highlight on Let the Dominoes Fall. It sees a band that knows it’s the same 20-somethings that forever revolutionized music with both Operation Ivy and the release of eponyomus debut in 1993. Yet, that does not mean the end has come – “Just wanna play one more show/Make some music with my friends,” Armstrong sings. This song, this three-minutes and eleven seconds sums up Rancid in one swoop. Even when the last album is released, the last tour date played, the music will live on, and Rancid will continue to remain as vibrant and as influential as ever.
A line from Indestructible‘s title track seems appropriate here: “‘Cause through music we can live forever.”