The Transplants' 2002 debut hinted at a new kind of urban rebel rock, one that not only glanced beyond cultural borders but also hopped the fence and liked what it found on the other side. With Haunted Cities, the LA trio of Rob Aston, Rancid's Tim Armstrong, and Blink 182's Travis Barker delivers on only part of that promise, venturing into new neighborhoods just to sell drugs and knock heads.
Main vocalist Aston, for whom Haunted Cities is something like a scrapped solo album, does have a social message to give. "I got everything you want, don't ask me for shit," he warns, blurring the difference between rap and rasp. Elsewhere he warns against trying to relate to him if "You never paid rent with cocaine and weed," and when he's in a good mood, he commands, "Take off your shoes and fork over the pot." So, lyrically speaking, it's now clear the Transplants don't play rebel music, but criminal music. Some would suggest the two are the same, but here's betting if Katherine Harris had to break bread with either Ice Cube or Chuck D, she'd get along with the man who raps about wheeling, dealing, and stealing instead of the one who's fighting the power. Even Tim Armstrong, the Transplants' resident intellectual, is totally in on the act this time, trading his usual urban wasteland observations for tough-ass posturing. During "American Guns," the one song in which Armstrong makes an attempt to widen the pinhole, he gives you only a few tossed-off lines about Vietnam.
But for Armstrong, Joe Strummer is more or less where history begins and ends, and it's the Transplants' dedication to a Clash-like no-bullshit eclecticism that redeems Haunted Cities. On the debut, punk was casually grafted to hip-hop and dusty rockabilly. But here the palette is less rock-centric, allowing for Seventies lowrider soul on "What I Can't Describe," Eddie Palmieri-style Latin piano on "Crash and Burn," and crystalline dub and drum and bass on "Gangsters and Thugs," all of it spiked with Hammond piano riffs, old-school scratching, Armstrong's guitar licks, and Barker's astonishingly precise live drumming. Musically, it's heady stuff. But when Aston advises, "Make the wrong move, you lose your torso," you'd better not ask any questions of any kind.
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