FIDLAR – “Too”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “40oz. on Repeat” “Overdose”

With track titles like “Punks,” “Overdose,” and “Bad Habits,” it might seem like “Too” is more of the same from FIDLAR. Their first album, mind you, had “Blackout Stout,” “Wake Bake Skate” and “Cocaine.” It might feel like there’s a gambit in song titles that FIDLAR is quickly running through. But, their sophomore album is an album that some people, myself included, didn’t anticipate coming so soon – the conflicting, adult album. Most punk bands grow up sometime – Rancid’s “Life Won’t Wait,” Dads’ “I’ll Be the Tornado.” FIDLAR’s maturity is a very reluctant one – some tracks on “Too” feel like holdovers from still-recent partying years. But as the guys grow up, they’re begrudgingly accepting a more sober life.

One of the best qualities of FIDLAR’s debut album, a personal favorite of mine, was an underlying, barely visible sense of angst. It only came out in certain songs, when the guys were sober enough to see that there were far too many problems in the world. Through the more youthful and the more adult songs on “Too,” the unifying sense is still the slight angst. This time, it’s on a more personal level, as “Too” is heavy on self-reflection. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult for me to talk to someone I don’t know,” is sung on “40oz. on Repeat.” “One week sober / and I’m still hungover,” from closer “Bad Habits.” “FIDLAR” was a humorously self-deprecating album, but “Too” ditches the humor. Take the lyrics from “Bad Habits,” set them in an entirely different musical context, and they could fit nicely on an Alice in Chains album.

But they’re still at a crossroads, because there’s still party tracks. “Sober,” despite the title, is almost inarguably the strangest song in the band’s catalog, with the opening third of the song done almost in spoken word (think the beginning of “The Sweater Song”* but with the vocal melody of “Baby Got Back”). And the album’s penultimate track, “Bad Medicine,” is a >3 minute song that feels like one last punk blast, for old time’s sake, the inverse of Renton taking one last injection in Trainspotting.

As with their debut album, the band has an innate and unexpected ability to eschew any one sub-genre of music. The downside is that it leaves FIDLAR without a distinct sound, something important in punk. But the upside is that each song is going to sound distinct. “Punks,” originally (or perhaps erroneously) titled “The Punks Are Finally Taking Acid,” is a heavy song, centered on a guitar riff akin to a quickened “She’s So Heavy,” with pained, screamed vocals. But follow-up “West Coast” is the kind of bouncy sing-along you more expect from the band. It goes back and forth, often reflective of the lyrics, and it adds a cohesiveness to the album. The lyrics are well-rounded, so the music should be too.

“Too” does ask one question that it does not answer – who should FIDLAR’s audience be, now? Their first album was able to answer that question very, very easily – partying punks and skaters. It’s practically a Ten Commandments for SoCal late teens who are gradually becoming less aware of Mat Hoffman. But their second album was made more for themselves, and that’s a dangerous line to cross. Just because we’re being let on on FIDLAR’s internal struggles doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something we want to see. I’m genuinely not sure who the intended audience is for this record, as the partyers generally aren’t going to warm up to the sobering songs as much. There’s a mixed audience for the album, and it’s going to be divisive among fans. Still, there’s enough going on that it stands as a solid, and different sophomore release. I’m just worried about what the band is going to have to go through for the next album.

* – I saw FIDLAR a couple months ago in Boston and they covered “the Sweater Song,” replacing most of the verses with the word “meow” repeated over and over again. Inspiration? Probably.

If you like this, try: Perfect Pussy’s “Say Yes to Love,” another album where a punk band suddenly tightened up, but not without a total maturity.

Rancid – “…Honor Is All We Know”

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Back Where I Belong” “Already Dead”

When you listen to an album like “…Honor Is All We Know,” the most immediate question is usually, who is this for? Rancid is facing the same problem many bands past the 20 year mark face – when you’ve made a career off a template, what do you do when it runs dry? This new album, their eighth, brings nothing new to the game, other than just reminding everyone they’re still going. But with a band like Rancid, that’s not such a bad thing.

2009’s “Let the Dominoes Fall” wasn’t a bad album, but it was pretty ho-hum. It was largely ska-based and lacked a real Rancid energy. This was all put forth in the lead single, “Last One to Die.” The meta-song acknowledged the fact that all of Rancid’s contemporaries have disbanded, died, gone through extensive line-up changes, or released “American Idiot.” But it also unintentionally admitted that they’ve been going too long, they’re sticking around just because they have no reason not to. This album’s best song is, probably with reason, “Already Dead.” This album brings the band’s energy back, even if there’s no reason for it’s existence.

In typical Rancid fashion, the first F-bomb comes within the first 30 seconds of opener “Back Where I Belong.” This might only be a facade of old Rancid, but they’re at least trying. Lyrically, the album is pretty scattershot. They’re pretty standard lyrics, about fighting when you’re down, gangs, East Bay, etc. Standard song titles – “Diabolical,” “Everybody’s Sufferin,'” “Raise Your Fist.” The most heavy-handed but direct lyrics might come curiosity of “Evil’s My Friend.” That title takes up some of the chorus, and it’s a laughably stereotypical Rancid song – what you could hope for in 2014. It’s unintentionally comical, but still so distinctly them.

The ellipses at the beginning of the album title is bold, because it subtly heralds a sequel album. 1995’s “…And Out Come the Wolves” is a punk legend. Stop and think – “Time Bomb,” “Roots Radical,” “Ruby Soho” and “Maxwell Murder” are all on that album. So announcing a sequel 19 years later, especially when most of your albums already sound the same, is bold. To Rancid’s credit, having most of music sound the same actually helps them here, as this could easily be a sequel. They pulled off two excellent, unrelated self-titled albums, one in ’93 and one in ’00, so there’s no reason a sequel can’t work. They’re just not the same level they were in ’95. At points, they sound tired, and at many points, they sound like a parody of themselves. Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen have always shared lead vocals, but for the most part, neither sounds like themselves here. Frederiksen’s growly vocals sound forced, and Armstrong is out of energy. It’s easy to ignore, for the most part, but there are moments where it’s jarring. And that best track, “Already Dead”? They sound like ’95 Rancid on that one, so it’s off-setting.

So the album isn’t great, it’s just a collection of street-punk songs. But, you need to factor some things in. The collective age of Rancid is 175, average age being 44. That’s with the younger, replacement drummer factored in. Armstrong and Matt Freeman are both 48, respectively. Most bands, even punk bands, aren’t still going this hard at this time. So credit there. And they’re playing to a fanbase. What street punk is today is based almost exclusively off of Rancid. They’ve only expanded once – on ’98’s “Life Won’t Wait,” – before going right back to their quick attacks. So they have to be a little self-serving.

I’ve been listening to Rancid since high school, we’re going on eight or nine years. I’m not the fan I used to be, but I’ll be damned if I don’t get pumped when “Rejected” or “Axiom” come up on shuffle. I’m pleased with this record. They’re here, still giving it their all, telling us they don’t want to be just a placeholder band, releasing the same crap over and over again. They kind of are, but they’ve still got the energy. This is actually their shortest record, and it’s a little symbolic. It’s shorter than “…And Out Come the Wolves” by 1:33 – that’s a full Rancid song. Knowing that feels right, like they’re still in it. Rancid fans, and street punk fans in general, might listen to “…Honor is All We Know” once and discard it – but it deserves at least that listen. It’s stagnant, but it at least tries to resemble old Rancid, and it’s worth a listen. How much more than that is the listener’s own decision, but there’s a few tracks I might come back to.

If you like this, try: Bad Religion’s 2013 album “True North.” They took a back to basics approach – which for them is back to ’84 – and released an album full of 1:45 punk blasts. It’s great, they haven’t missed a beat.

-By Andrew McNally