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The Offspring

Conspiracy of One (Columbia)

The Offspring has made itself tough to love. The group formed legitimately enough in the mid-'80s, when vocalist Dexter Holland and bassist Greg Kriesel got home from a Social Distortion show and decided they had seen the light. Since then, they've become hugely successful, selling pop-punk CDs by the tens of millions.

But the punk legions turned away long ago (despite continuing to confer legitimacy to the equally sold-out Green Day), and critics have held the band at arm's length for almost as long. Some laughably bad live performances along the way didn't help the cause much.

Two years ago the Offspring released perhaps its most formulaic record to date, Americana. And the formula, having been distilled to its purest form, went something like this: Write a few mid-tempo songs with big hooks, lazy pop-culture references and a slight non-Anglo musical undertone, and then fill the rest of the record with increasingly standard California punk.

One could dissect the Offspring's new release, Conspiracy of One, along similar lines. The difference is that this time around, both the individual songs and the CD as a whole are simply too strong to dismiss. For example, you have to give "Original Prankster," the first single, its due: If writing pop songs catchy enough to lodge involuntarily in your head or clever enough to make you smile were that easy, we'd all be doing it.

When it comes to punk, "Come Out Swinging" and "Conspiracy of One" are as good as the pop version of the stuff gets. Then there's "Million Miles Away," which successfully splices a sense of longing to three-chord guitar rock of the simplest yet highest barroom order. "Special Delivery," meanwhile, recalls such "grown-up" acts as the Smithereens in its restrained yet compelling approach to the whole drum-and-guitar concept. Heck, not even the ballads sound cheesy this time around.

Though probably still not enough to convince the anti-Offspring contingent of the band's merits -- an impossible task in any case -- Conspiracy of One is easily its best, most accomplished record yet, and should have new fans and fence-sitters alike coming on board by the busload.

 
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