Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Review: Transplants - Haunted Cities

What is Transplants music? You probably don’t want to ask Transplant Rob Aston, who (I believe) tried to reach through the phone to crush my very soul when I asked him that question during my recent interview with him.

So, it’s hard to define. It of course sounds a little bit like the various bands that its members also play or have played for: Rancid, Operation Ivy, Blink-182, Boxcar Racer. It’s a little like Sublime in its genre-blended and sun-drenched dark vision of SoCal partying and gangsterizing. It’s a little like Gorrilaz in its side-project turned Major Act status.

Not to mention a fresh and strange new musical force.

The opening track, “Not Today,” picks up where Transplants’ self-titled debut left off: it’s a party, but one in which you might want to watch your back, or at least make sure your homies are doing it for you. It’s surf punk maxed out to nihilistic plains under the careful control of musical dynamo and legend Tim Armstrong. Travis Barker, he of Blink and Boxcar and, more recently, MTV’s reality show Meet the Barkers, continues to provide nothing less than stunning drum work, making the bottom end of each track as exciting as possible. Then there’s Rob Aston, who shows more range in his shouty punk/hip hop vocals (if not in his gangsta-rific lyrics) across the album to round out the supergroup hybridized genre-blend of a trio. If that’s not enough, Sen Dog from Cypress Hill stops by on to lend a verse.

Quick hit: I like how Tim Armstrong refers to the band self-referentially a few times as “T-plants.”

“Apocalypse Now” opens with beeps and the sounds of what might be a jail cell’s door closing. We then get treated to Tim Armstrong’s wonderfully weird vocal stylings. I’ve heard Armstrong described as the Ray Charles of punk. I think he keeps getting better and better, whether he’s playing for Transplants or Rancid, and so he’s certainly worth the price of admission by himself. The rest of the song is a bit monotonous in its frenetic pleadings.

“Gangsters and Thugs” is a tune that will likely always be mentioned alongside any conversation of Transplants, and perhaps for music in general that falls anywhere near the Gangster Camp, on the strength of its chorus:

Gangsters and thugs

Criminals and hugs

Some of my friends sell records

Some of my friends sell drugs

The volume is actually dialed back to a much more relaxed level here, which helps to make this one of the more interesting tracks on the album. An almost corny-sounding blues guitar and organ combo still leave me slightly baffled after a bunch of listens. Which is a good thing, I suppose.

“What I Can’t Describe,” featuring Boo-Ya T.R.I.B.E., is a significant departure from Transplants’ already eclectic formula, and it misses its mark rather badly. A 70s-drenched R&B vibe just doesn’t mesh all that well with Rob Aston’s hardcore punk and angry white guy sensibilities.

Quick hit: I have a hard time getting into a song that announces, “Let the funky beat play.”

Thankfully, “Doomsday” follows and, to use one of my favorite descriptions, just about knocks me on my ass. By far the best track on the album, it’s a wonderful cocktail of a mixture of hep-cat swing and cooled out punk with serious street cred. It’s music you could imainge hearing in an apocalyptic lizard lounge or the Cool Ass section of town in purgatory. The production work is reminiscent of “Down in Oakland,” off Transplant’s first album. Both songs stay with you and demand repeat listens.

“Killafornia” brings driving guitars and an organ half-lifted from Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want?” The great Sen Dog, also of Cypress Hill, stops in here for the tensely vibed party. The song works because the Bad Times and edgy guitar matches well with the loose piano and organ hooks.

Quick hit: Every time I hear the Dog I lament the fact that he didn’t end up with Rage Against the Machine’s remaining members after Zach de la Rocha’s departure.

“American Guns” sounds as though it might have been left on the cutting room floor during the Transplants sessions. On “Madness” and throughout the remainder of the album, Aston takes over a large extent of the vocal duties, with varying levels of success. This is a passable song, lacking the inventive elements that dominate on the album’s better songs. “Hit the Fence” is much more effective because it combines the dialed back yet edgy tone with a fantastic marching beat from Barker. “Pay Any Price” has a nice drowsy hardcore feel to it, but it sounds somewhat unfinished.

“I Want It All,” with its loopy piano, is reminiscent of “California Babylon” in a good way. Armstrong’s doubled and harmonized invocation that he wants it all again compounds the theme of Transplants: get yours, watch your friends’ backs… and don’t ask too many questions about how said friends get theirs.

“Crash and Burn,” the album’s final song, is an experiment that largely works, mostly thanks to Armstrong’s great and strange lyrical weaving through a bouncy and not unspicy Latin beat.

Now that we can see the T-Plants coming, we have high expectations. Haunted Cities is a very good album, but doesn’t quite catch the excitement and freshness of Transplants.

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