Note: this originally appeared in The Cauldron, (2008), and is included here as part of an ongoing blog consolidation project.
Now Hear This!
Music you may have missed
By Jonathan ‘Killstring’ Herzberger
The Cauldron Staff Writer
The Supergroup. One of rock music’s most often attempted disasters, simply cut-and-pasting members of different bands together has more often than not resulted in train wrecks that were not only less than the sum of their collective parts – many were downright embarrassing. It turns out that the love of music that come from friends messing around in their basements is difficult to manufacture.
But what if a Supergroup formed accidentally, by doing exactly that?
Why then, you would have the Transplants – one of rock music’s happiest accidents. In the summer of 1999, Rancid Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist Tim Armstrong had been fiddling around with some recording software on his computer, teaching himself to play the piano, and generally goofing around, making hip-hop. His friend Rob Aston added some vocals, and bit by bit ideas began to look like songs, songs began to sound like an album, and as more and more friends stopped by to add their two cents, it began to sound like a band. When Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker signed on in 2002, it became pretty clear they were on to something special.
In this case, ‘something special’ equated to Transplants, modestly and quietly released on Armstrong’s own Hellcat Records. The thought was that the disc might move a few units, maybe they’d do a tour, and that would have been a fun little diversion. However, Transplants was lightning in a bottle – its spastic, genre-leaping (and in some cases, defying) sound was immediately accessible, vital, and just plain fun. From the inner-city reggae of ‘California Babylon’ to the catchy ‘DJ DJ’, the blend of Armstrong’s mad-scientist instrumentals, Skinhead Rob’s unorthodox rapping, and Barker’s kinetic skinwork, the appeal of Transplants was immediate. With ‘Diamonds and Guns’, the band managed to blend a cautionary tale about the Columbian drug trade with a piano hook so catchy, Neutrogena now uses it to sell shampoo. The band was more successful than anybody had anticipated, and after a few singles and some successful touring, the band shook hands and parted ways from what had undoubtedly been a wonderful experiment – but it was time to get back to their ‘real’ bands.
Following his unfortunate divorce from Distillers vocalist Brody Armstrong (don’t cheat on your boyfriends when you go on tour, ladies – that’s in terribly poor taste) Armstrong recorded Indestructible with Rancid – as tasteful a post-breakup record as exists, and even brought Aston along for guest vocals on “Red Hot Moon”. Barker did some more touring with Blink, and cameos notwithstanding, Aston got back to carrying around guitar amps for AFI.
In 2004, the rumblings of a second album were forming in much the same fashion as the first – only this time, members of Cypress Hill, Dilated Peoples, and Boo Ya Tribe were lending their talents, and Atlantic Records was talking distribution. In the summer of 2005 – a mere four months after Blink 182 declared an indefinite hiatus – The Transplants released Haunted Cities, a masterful blend of punk, hip-hop, soul, reggae, and – well, pretty much everything else under the sun (and possibly a few ideas from deep space.) From the leadoff single “Gangsters & Thugs”, Armstrong & Co. set the stage for record’s inherent duality with the simple refrain “Some of my friends sell records – some of my friends sell drugs.” The album takes an unexpected twist, as the depressing gravitas of “What I can’t Describe” – an ode to despair, a weary resignation to dying alone – is delivered in some of the smoothest, most soulful R&B since Motown’s heyday. “Crash and Burn” blends a jovial calypso beat with more street-hardened tales, and “I want it All” is another toe-tapping piano-pounder, which casually weaves a story about growing up in a culture of crime, and the pratfalls of arrogance.
And that’s where the Transplants really shine the brightest – in a dichotomous blend of gritty street cred, boundless joyful optimism, and an experimental freedom to try just about anything, Transplants make music that exists in multiple worlds at once. It’s Punk, and Hip-Hop, it’s focused and freestyle, it’s aggressive and puts a smile on your face. Circa 2008, the band has no plans for the future – but the possibility remains. In the meantime, we have two absolute gems from some unlikely collaborators. There’s nothing really to compare it to – because there’s nothing really like it. This is music for the joy of music, pure and simple – and I cannot recommend it highly enough.