Is it a good career strategy to be a literate punk? The charts would tell you that lunkhead posturing is money in the bank, what with Good Charlotte spoon-feeding brittle rock candy to kids who were born after the Clash broke up. So where does that leave Rancid, the smart, Berkeley-bred band who made one of the last decade's best punk albums (1994's ''Let's Go'') but who must now jockey for position with a bunch of half-pint, barré-chord jarheads? Fortunately, with Indestructible, their first CD in three years, Rancid have put their best jackboot forward, producing a diverse 19-track opus that welds brains to brawn.
As an apt pupil of the first wave of British punk, most notably the Clash, Rancid leader Tim Armstrong writes brash, socially conscious agitprop and delivers it with a blithe disregard for ornamentation. He even sings in a fake British accent, making the U.K. connection explicit. Rancid can rev up their punk buzz saw as energetically as any whippersnappers, and the album contains its fair share of hardcore speed trips: the title tune, a rat-a-tat rage against consumer culture; ''David Courtney,'' a bruising homage to a petty thief; and ''Out of Control,'' a rant against government surveillance that could soundtrack future John Ashcroft protests. ''Travis Bickle,'' which rides a baleful, galloping riff, speaks to the raging taxi driver in all of us (''Game over/It's no fun...I'm gonna go get my gun/Blam, blam, blam, you're done''). It's chilling melodrama, like gangsta rap transposed to the mosh pit.
But it's when Rancid downshift that things get really interesting. ''Red Hot Moon,'' an affecting cautionary yarn about a working-class girl trapped in a dead-end factory job, rides a gentle ska groove. ''Arrested in Shanghai,'' Armstrong's tale of an American who gets arrested for protesting against the Chinese government, is similar in spirit to Joe Strummer's politically charged post-Clash work with the Mescaleros.
The state of the union may be in tatters, according to ''Indestructible'''s doomsday scenarios, but there's an underlying sense of optimism in these buoyant rave-ups. Armstrong and his bandmates still believe in punk as a powerful call to action. A silly notion, perhaps, in this era of punk lite, but here's hoping this record at least gets a fighting chance.