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The Offspring 

Conspiracy of One (Columbia)

Posing as a punk act since its inception in Southern California 15 years ago, the Offspring is really a meathead rock band in disguise. How else to explain its mysterious transformation from punk revivalists to hard-rock heroes -- a move that pushed its last two albums, 1997's Ixnay on the Hombre and 1998's Americana into multiplatinum territory while onetime peers such as Rancid, Green Day, and Social Distortion had to retreat to the club circuit because of waning interest. Okay, maybe there was something semi-sociological and punk about the Offspring's 1994 hit "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)," a song about escalating gang warfare in SoCal, but they've dumbed things down since then, and Conspiracy of One is further proof of just how one-dimensional and shallow the band really is.

No Offspring record would be complete without a novelty hit, and Conspiracy's first single, "Original Prankster," a song with a faux Latin beat, call-and-response refrain, and references to the Son of Sam, Janet Reno, and Prozac, fills the quotient. It's catchy as hell, but also completely meaningless and sounds as if it were written specifically for an extreme-sport soundtrack. While the Offspring's sense of humor has provided the band with the most exposure (thanks in part to the goofy videos that MTV shoves into heavy rotation), it's better off here on more serious tracks such as the Nirvana-like "Vultures" and the power ballad "Denial Revisited." But these songs will undoubtedly be ignored in favor of the testosterone-fueled "Come Out Swinging," the pop-punk anthem "I Want You Bad," and the reckless rocker "One Fine Day" -- tracks that will help the album top the charts, but do nothing to enhance the band's artistry. All of which makes the so-called controversy that ensued when the group tried to put this entire album up on the Internet for free downloading (Columbia put the ixnay on that idea) seem like a cheap publicity stunt designed to cover up the Offspring's utter lack of musical creativity.

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