Exclusive! First Look at Rancid's Life Won't Wait

Punk-ska band incorporates rockabilly, glockenspiel on upcoming album.

The members of Rancid have long acknowledged the influence of British punk-rock icons the Clash. And, as the Clash did in their later recordings, the Berkeley, Calif.-based band is branching out in new, more sophisticated directions with its upcoming album, Life Won't Wait (June 30).

This time, other names may be cropping up as reference points for Rancid. They are artists such as Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, who have nothing to do with the punk movement of the '70s.

These unlikely comparisons have less to do with Rancid's music than their ethos. Like Springsteen, the Stones and Dylan, this band is devoted to its craft and its value system. While many punk-rockers are proud of raw single-take recordings and "honest" but poor sound quality, Rancid want to get the job done right. The result may be more polished, but the passion is still there.

There's evidence of Rancid's determination throughout the self-produced Life Won't Wait. It's seen in their decision to weave new instruments and styles into their punk-ska mix, in their consistently resolute vocals and in their journey to cut some tracks in Jamaica (the birthplace of ska music). If Rancid are not known as pioneers at this stage of their career, they are still master craftsmen. Their new album, the band's fourth, should solidify that reputation.

The album's first single, a rigorous, punky mission-statement called "Bloodclot," proclaims as much. Amid chants that recall the Ramones' trademark "Hey! Ho!"s, singer/guitarist Lars Frederiksen proclaims himself "a crazy upsetter" and a "streetwise professor" and boasts of "climbing from the depths of hell unscathed." The refrain -- "Pick it back up and start it all over again" -- could refer to the group's well-worn punk-rock palette as well as any personal resurrections experienced by the bandmembers. Frederiksen's defiant self-awareness, expressed in his assertion that he can "see 360 [degrees]," is bracing and a perfect compliment to the track's firecracker music.

Rancid's last album, 1995's ...And Out Come The Wolves, featured potent musical execution, but it found much of its power in the blunt, insightful lyrics by Frederiksen and singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong. With Life Won't Wait, the songwriters continue their explorations of working-class characters and community.

"New Dress" juxtaposes the desires of a blue-collar girl in America with the pain experienced by the people of war-ravaged Yugoslavia, while "Black Lung" could have been written and recorded by Springsteen had the Boss been born in 1969 instead of '49. Speaking of dates, "1998" hearkens to the Clash's "1977" and the Stooges' "1969" in title, but it also points out that the drug-addled mistakes made by some of today's punks are the same stupid moves made by musicians from decades before.

The band focuses on racial and musical unity for the ultra-infectious ska romp "Hooligans" (featuring help from the Specials), emotional honesty for "Cocktails" and personal dreams for "Who Would've Thought."

Rancid's material may often deal in sordid or unpleasant subject matter, but "Leicester Square" implies the band's sense of community and hope. The song's chorus offers a somewhat painful defense against signing on to gang life: "I've got no inside/ I've got no feeling/ I've got nothing that you want, so stay away from me." The music however -- replete with hand claps, group backing vocals and fresh bass drop-outs under the verses -- imbues the song with an air of virtuous community.

While the music on Life Won't Wait trades primarily in punk, there are several stand-out ska numbers. They include the ominous title track (featuring vocals from dancehall toaster Buju Banton), the West Coast to East Coast shout-out "Wrongful Suspicion" and "Crane Fist."

With "Cash, Culture and Violence," Rancid turn the tables on many bands in the current wave of punk-ska. Rather than lay rough punk vocals over an antsy ska rhythm, the band (with help from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Dicky Barrett) grinds out a pounding punk track underneath effects-laden ska-style lyrics. "Lady Liberty," on the other hand, throws some good old-fashioned rockabilly into the mix.

Other songs maintain loyalty to Rancid's musical roots while adding new textures. On "Intro" and "Cocktails," the group injects healthy doses of frantic harmonica among the blazing guitars. "Hoover Street," the intimate tale of a Salvadoran immigrant's addiction, has delicate touches of glockenspiel to complement Armstrong's vocals. Although the musicians have brought keyboards to their sound before, they've never worked with them as playfully as they do on "Crane Fist," which features a piano and organ dancing around a probing vocal.

Despite the band's multi-textured approach, Life Won't Wait adds up to a passionate, cohesive whole. It should keep Rancid fans intrigued throughout the summer.