n December 12, 1980, The Clash released Sandinista, a three-record album that was the most progressive recording yet undertaken by a punk-rock band. Mixing rap, R&B;, dub-reggae and Eddie Cochran-type rockabilly with their punk attitude, the album and it’s 36 songs was the equivalent of the band drawing a line in the sand and leaving the decision up to their fans on whether or not they wanted to cross it.
Why is a twenty-two year old album by The Clash being mentioned in a review of Transplants’ debut? Well, because the band, Tim Armstrong (Rancid), Travis Barker (Blink-182) and Rob Aston, seem to owe a great debt to this particular album. But in all honesty, Armstrong owes his whole career to The Clash. As glaring rip offs go, Rancid are fairly harmless, certainly not as offensive as The Vines’ aping Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. And, unlike The Clash, who were once dubbed ''the only band that mattered", the same cannot be said of any punk band of the past fifteen years, least of all, the pale, carbon copy pose that is struck by countless, so-called punk acts, including Rancid.
As far as the comparisons to Sandinista, there is a parallel to be drawn from that venerated album and this one. Both were/are responses, of sorts, to a genre grown stale, and both throw a lot of experimentation into the mix. So, to see Armstrong construct an album filled with tape loops, doo-wop style backing vocals, turn table scratching and other hip-hop elements, Motown samples and adding the pinpoint, stop on a dime drumming of Barker (who is a bit more restrained than normal, possibly due to the fact that he came on board the project after it was done and replaced the computerized drum beats Armstrong originally laid down), is to be genuinely surprised. Credit Armstrong for going out of his usual milieu and working with a wider palette than the one color Rancid seems to be stuck on. There are moments that show what could have been and that really cook, but there is also a lot of nonsense that should have been given further examination before being thrust out into the world. In the end the music and message of Transplants never amounts to anything more than a different pose struck by musicians who fail to have the comprehension to invest actual radical change to a form in which they are well versed in. And one in which they have greatly benefited financially from as well, something that cannot be said of those that broke the very ground that these new acts reap rewards from.
Releasing "Diamonds and Guns" as the band’s leadoff single, is a very wise move. It features a hook-filled, bouncy piano refrain, tight drumming by Barker and a vocal revolving door by Armstrong, Aston and Son Doobie, replete with ultra-catchy "woo-hoo"s. Of the album's twelve songs, "Guns" has the most chance of being a breakout hit. "D.J. D.J.", features some great interplay between Dave Carlock on synths and Armstrong on guitar. "Quick Death" goes into sonic overdrive, industrial style, delivering some interesting sampling and scratching, and over the top vocals. "One Seventeen" is a turbo-charged, unstoppable force of a song. Churning guitar, mad dog vocals and precision playing by Barker all conspire to make this a raging beast.
Using a sample of The Temptations’ "Ain’t Too Proud To Beg" on "California Babylon" is about the only thing interesting done on the song. As far as clichéd stories about the dangers found in Hollywood, this one is rather lame. Cocaine, guns and death are all found here, none of them any real shocker. Going back to the well with a "woo-hoo" chorus does not work the second time out, either.
"D.R.E.A.M." is a dreadful rip off of The Chronic-era Dr. Dre. Filling a song with boring, boastful, blowhard nonsense over lame ass Casio synths is hardly anything new and there is definitely nothing done with it to praise. By now are people not tired of such braggadocio in the manner of being "hardcore" and talk of which coast someone is on or what crew they are with? "Down In Oakland" is all cliched spaghetti-western style guitars over boring crime story lyrics. "Tall Cans In The Air", while having an energy that is at first hard to beat, soon becomes tiresome, bogging down in boasts about how great Transplants, in fact, are. "Romper Stomper", the leadoff track, despite having some interesting synth work, again by Carlock, ultimately grates due to the vocals (provided by Rob Aston). In fact, the band's ultimate weakness might be this former roadie for AFI and Rancid (imagine that). He has a certain power that is endearing to hear on a first pass, but it just wears out its welcome on multiple ones.
On "Sad But True", a well employed B3 organ, courtesy of Vic Ruggiero, lays the groundwork for a warm remembrance of lost friends, and as a showcase for some great backing vocals. "Weigh On My Mind" features Armstrong's wife, Brody Armstrong, lead singer of The Distillers, on background vocals and is a song made for summer cruising. And, because every punk record seems to need one, there is the ubiquitous done-me-wrong song, here entitled "We Trusted You". "I say we line 'em all up / Then we gun 'em all down / Then we all celebrate / When they all hit the ground", is the general ill will indicated in the lyrics to some unnamed enemy.
Ultimately, this is not a radical effort created to divide in the manner in which Sandinista was. Maybe in the end all that Armstrong had in mind was to try something new and not to cause uproar in the punk community or to not lay the blame of the rampant complacency that infests punk rock at the feet of the bands and fans of the genre. Perhaps all that is going on here is that he was bored and decided to put together an album featuring a mish-mash of styles and genres and to showcase some friends that he perhaps felt were not being given the attention they deserved. Whatever the case, Armstrong has put together an album that while occasionally fun to listen to, leaves little reason to exist other than as a footnote to the careers of those involved. It is neither a work to be outright dismissed, nor one to be heralded as the advancement of a genre. The debut album by Transplants is a case of plusses and minuses that, in the end, simply cancel each other out, leaving the faint whiff in the air that something perhaps has just transpired.
Reviewed by: Brett Hickman
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01