In pure IQ-test terms singer Dexter Holland is just inches away from his microbiology Ph.D., for Christ's sake the Offspring might rank as one of rock's smartest bands ever. Add the fact that their 1994 album, Smash, was also an unprecedentedly megaplatinum indie-punk success story, and you've got the potential for a longstanding career. But in the three years since then, the stakes have been raised: A number of energetic ensembles (Rancid, Local H, Sublime) have made records whose riff rock and/or reggae make all but Smash's biggest hits seem like dime-a-dozen hardcore hack work by comparison. To keep up, the Offspring would need to totally abandon the comfy mosh-club confines in which they came of age for the Middle American car-radio format that embraced the wit and wisdom of "Come Out and Play" and "Self Esteem." Whether the band was smart or brave enough to risk punk fans' self-righteous wrath remained to be seen.
Of course, most purists thought these guys sold out the first time they showed up on MTV and sixth-graders started buying their discs. Last year, the Offspring gave integrity-obsessed punks even more to complain about by leaving the independent label Epitaph for the megacorporation Sony. So, not surprisingly, as their fourth album, Ixnay on the Hombre, opens, we find the foursome proclaiming themselves "real" in a smarmy spoken-word "Disclaimer" from veteran blowhard Jello Biafra. The band then gets said obligatory "realness" out of the way with two of the collection's more tantrumlike numbers, "The Meaning of Life" and "Mota."
From there, though, the album is gratifyingly unstraitjacketed by slam dance; the band switches from defensively covering its ass to defiantly covering hard-rock bases. Ixnay's smoking chords, chunky bottom, surprising mode shifts and melodic good humor suggest Van Halen's late-'70s California more than Black Flag's.
"Gone Away" and "Amazed" communicate grunge-type pessimism with a rare clarity and gravity. That said, the album's more melodramatic material has its dry spots. Ixnay's true heart comes from less blatantly serious seminovelties, where Dexter Holland's hefty high register keeps the group's eccentric beats light on their feet; whenever his gang harmonizes behind him, the music turns positively anthemic. "Don't Pick It Up" about why you shouldn't pick up transvestites, dog turds or stupid and contagious diseases starts out with an a cappella ba-baa-BAA out of "At the Hop." Then it evolves into an expert ska rhythm, whereupon Holland hilariously resurrects Johnny Rotten's slimy staccato snarl from "Problems."
Over the Van Halen-ish chukka-chukka of "I Choose" and the funky bass lines of "Me and My Old Lady," Holland air-dives into a pinched Perry Farrell falsetto. On the latter track, his voice dances with sex-reveling mirth around the same sort of Saharan surf guitars that hooked "Come Out and Play" obviously, the Offspring aren't afraid to refer back to their own best work. Likewise, the barrio-weed ode "Mota" has its title shouted out periodically in a forceful Hispanic accent, not unlike "Come Out's" indelible "You gotta keep 'em separated!" three years back.
At the least, Ixnay erases any doubts that the Offspring are less than complex thinkers or versatile players. If "Come Out and Play," with its feuding among high-school factions, was "Jet Song" from West Side Story, Ixnay's wise "Way Down the Line" is "Gee, Officer Krupke!" Which is to say, it rejoices in parents passing down personal delinquencies to their real-life offspring. "An angry man gets drunk and beats his kid, same old way his drunken father did" then a girl named Shannon is unmarried and pregnant like her own mom was at 17, and the cycles just repeat themselves generation after generation. It's what-comes-around-goes-around determinism chasing a Stones-like guitar bounce, with a freebie reggae break at the end not quite "Love Child" by the Supremes, but it sure beats "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin. Maybe Dexter should get his next Ph.D. in sociology. (RS 753)
(Posted: Jan 10, 1997)
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