Written by: Stephen Kondracki, Special to CC2K
311's latest album, though mostly for the band's completists, isn't bad.
Say what you want about them, 311 have certainly carved out a niche in the music world that somehow coexists in both the “mainstream” and “cult following” realms of music popularity. It’s tough to say which one begets the other in this case, but I’m not so sure it matters. 311 has managed to maintain a vast loyal fan base for well over a decade despite making music that runs the gamut from good to great, ok to decent, terrible to unlistenable – and everywhere in between, within, without, and around – or something.
Their latest album Uplifter is no gem, but it serves its purpose as “the new 311 album” just fine. As the title suggests, it’s filled with happy-ish music and the best whiteboy reggae that Nebraska has ever produced (not necessarily an insult). It also offers up plenty of 311’s not-so-hard rock, their signature awkward rapping, and ubiquitous predictable harmonies. There are some fantastic moments, some baffling moments, and plenty of forgettable moments to even things out.
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of this whole album is right up front and center with the opening track and first single off the album, “Hey You.” With all due respect to Nick Hexum and crew, this song is atrocious. It actually encompasses all of the fairly blatant musical inadequacies harbored by the band that I try very hard forget: juvenile lyrics, distastefully executed song structure, and straight-up bad melodies.
I must say that when I first heard “Hey You” on the radio, I was embarrassed and scared. Embarrassed because many of my friends know how big of a 311 fan I was/am, and scared to hear the rest of the album. But low and behold, the rest of the album is nowhere near as bad as this song led me to believe. So it begs the question: Why? Why choose this song as the single? It’s super easy to bury a bad song or five in a full-length album as long as you have decent singles. Just ask every band ever. There’s no reason to take one of those terrible songs and say “Hey, world, listen to this garbage. We think it will make you want to give us money for the rest of the songs we made!”
But how is the rest of the album? Let’s say it’s a solid “not bad.” The band reverts a bit from their previous album, Don’t Tread On Me, which was itself a divergence into a more straightforward reggae sound. Although DTOM was moderately enjoyable, Uplifter marks what I would consider a good decision to return to the bread and butter 311 style that has kept them employed for a long time. Songs like “Golden Sunlight” and “Two Drops in the Ocean” provide the chilled out grooves that listeners have expected from 311 ever since the songs “Amber,” “Champagne,” and “Beyond the Grey Sky” (and the ENTIRE album of Transistor) gave them much cerebral enjoyment.
The band also manages a slight return to some sounds that recall their fleeting hard-rock cred with “Something Out of Nothing,” “Jackpot,” and “India Ink.” Sadly though, these tracks are decent at best and pure regurgitation of previous material at worst. And of course they do their mellow acoustic-y type songs that serve as great background music, if nothing else. The album closer “My Heart Sings” holds down this honor respectfully. A couple other complete duds barely worth mentioning, “Mix it Up” and “Never Ending Summer” follow the lead of “Hey You” and can be left out of your iTunes shopping cart without fret. Actually, “Never Ending Summer” features a fantastic instrumental breakdown and guitar solo (expert musicianship is an area where 311 actually excels quite impressively) but still probably not worth that $0.99 – get that candy bar instead, you deserve it.
One of the highlights of Uplifter is “It’s Alright.” While not necessarily an instant classic, it’s got just the right blend of the things that 311 does well. It’s a little trippy, it’s a little rockin’, and it’s got a great hook and chorus. Look out for this one to be slotted as the second single, unless they really are trying to avoid advertising the good songs.
These five Midwestern natives pride themselves on the stoner-friendly “positive vibe” mentality. It’s been their thing ever since they hit the big time, and it seems to have served them quite well. In fact, I’d say it can account for the staying power of their music and their reputable live show. Simply put, people like to get high and see 311 concerts, even if they’re only casual or occasional fans. I’d also venture to guess that this “observation” has something to do with the way people seem to be able to overlook the rampant mediocrity in many of their songs. It breaks my heart to say that, honestly – I’m a long time 311 fan, I have a lot of nostalgia for their older music, I own and listen to every single one of their albums – yet the older I get the more surprised I am at how I ever liked some of the stuff they have churned out. Every album since Transistor, has been OK at best, but a sizeable core of fans loves them faithfully regardless. At the end of the day, Uplifter is only a must-have for the 311 completist, but it may not be a bad pickup for someone who appreciates expert musicianship and longs to tap their inner eighth-grader.