Dropping records that consistently improve with each subsequent release, regardless of the artist or the standards, is quite possibly the most common and difficult obstacle encountered by every band at some point or another. Topping greatness with grandeur and grandeur with an even greater grandiosity is a process that can only persist for a limited period of time, and eventually a day comes when the next LP just doesn’t shimmer as brightly as the last. Very few, if any, have conquered this daunting challenge for the entirety of their existence, and most have likely come to realize sooner or later that their best, now, unfortunately just doesn’t have the power to surpass their best, then.
For 311, a band that shattered this convention for most of their lifespan, it appeared there was no halting their momentum. With their catchy blend of funky reggae-infused hard rock, they managed to significantly better their priors for an impressive span, reaching a creative summit somewhere around the late ’90s/early 2000s era of Transistor/Soundsystem/From Chaos, then descending a tad further ever since. Uplifter (released June 2 on Volcano Records) – their ninth studio and first in nearly four years, their longest gap between albums – offers more than enough to redeem them from 2005’s sub-par Don’t Tread on Me, yet fails to come anywhere near the high water mark set in their prime.
While many of the makings of a standard 311 album are here – heavy distorted riffs to make you nod your head, wacky bass-slappin’ nuggets compliments of P-Nut, the chilled-out island vibe known from poppier tunes like “Amber” – there’s a notable lack of both quality and quantity that have been gradually fading from the “311 sound.” The flame spitting lyrical dexterity of Nick Hexum and S.A. Martinez, known for rapidly trading off rhymes and lines like a hot potato, just simply isn’t of the strength or the frequency it once was, and the predominantly literal lyrical content doesn’t provoke, stimulate or inspire like some of their more cosmic, contemplative material from yesteryear. Musically, they put a clear effort into incorporating new elements – albeit by also dropping many of their other signatures in the process – including a few synths, multiple interludes and even sitar on “India Ink,” but a perfect start-to-finish cohesion is missing on a few tracks (the single, “Hey You,” being one of them). The surprising part is, despite these particulars, Uplifter amazingly still shreds it on a number of levels, mixing together vintage hard-hitters and an abundance of laid-back love songs with the classic 311 style.
The early-summer timing for the album’s release couldn’t be more impeccable, as tunes like “Golden Sunlight,” “Two Drops in the Ocean” and “It’s Alright” all fit nicely into their summertime niche, a collection of dog-day ditties – “My Stoney Baby,” “Champagne,” “All Mixed Up” and, of course, “Summer of Love,” to name a few – that capture its essence and are reminiscent of the season no matter the time of year. “It’s Alright,” which features Tim Mahoney‘s washy guitar licks and a dope bass breakdown, strives to convey the rectifying power of music (“One song … could end the war”), a common theme throughout this album and most other 311 releases. The swinging “Too Much Too Fast” might also be categorized the same way, yet its sound comes off as anything but 311-esque. Strangely, The Beach Boys or even a smidgen of doo-wop seems to come to mind instead, and although the thought might tend to startle, the jolly piece works surprisingly well, with Hex and S.A. hitting high harmonies never heard from them before.
“My Heart Sings” keeps with the trend of their past three albums by closing it out on a soft note, with both acoustic and wah-wah strings laying it down for Hexum to yet again serenade his latest love interest, displaying the soothing abilities of his truly pacifying vocals.
But how ’bout the real deal, freak-out-prompting 311? Oh yes, that’s here, too. “Mix It Up,” despite its brevity, is a zinger that’ll surely get bodies a-rockin’ on tour. It’s got the funkiness, the boom, the pow and the energy so overt to some of their biggest bangers, and should no doubt become a crowd-jolter. The only primarily S.A.-led jam, “Something Out of Nothing,” with Chad Sexton‘s aggressive time-keeping tact and some chanting reflections on who we (the crew and their greater extended community) are, also has great potential once a part of the live repertoire.
So, Uplifter is a far cry from Transistor, by far their most moving and complete studio accomplishment. Uplifter may not even rank amongst their top albums, but the fact is there’s still plenty of gooey 311 goodness to be had, and enjoyed fully if the comparison tendencies are checked at the door, accepting that they simply won’t put out another Soundsystem or the like. They’re no longer the reckless and relentless youths of their early days – all members but P-Nut turn 40 within the coming year – but today, they’re still livin’ and rockin’ as hard as they appear able to, keeping heads moving and spreading their ingrained positivity along the way. This disc, if anything, proves that, and I for one will continue to welcome their vibe in any dose.
JamBase | Shining Above
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