Sound: When a band has enjoyed lifespan of over 20 years, creativity and ingenuity (or even progress) may dwindle or falter in the face of longevity. Such is the case with 311's latest release, Uplifter, the band's ninth studio album. The follow-up to 2005's Don't Tread on Me, Uplifter picks up right where 311 last left off: loud, distorted guitar-driven anthems featuring their funky rhythm section (brought to you by Chad Sexton on drums and the slap-happy P-Nut on bass) and mixture of both dreamy, relaxed and rapped vocals.
311's genre-blending approach to their music is at full force on their newest album, featuring blends of reggae, rap, funk, and rock. The approach is at once both satisfyingly catchy and comfortably familiar. Uplifter treads a well-worn (and successful) path, giving fans exactly what they have come to expect from the band a collection of heavier songs such as Mix It Up or Hey You that appeal to the fans of the more raw 311 (think back to songs off of Music, 311, or Soundsystem like Feels So Good, Down, and Come Original) as well as softer, laid-back, and and more harmonious songs like Two Drops In The Ocean and My Heart Sings that are more reminiscent of the band's mainstream successes in past songs like Amber or their cover of Love Song.
Despite this combination of styles, Uplifter does, as a whole, place much more of an emphasis on a heavier sound. In fact, front man Nick Hexum has gone so far as to describe this album as the heaviest 311 has ever been, (311.com). Well, not quite. At its best it is as intense as their heaviest music, but nothing more. What is certain, however, is that never before has a 311 album been so geared towards their successes on tour. The majority of Uplifter seems pre-packaged for their live show anthemic choruses ready to be sung-along to and dominant, catchy riffs that will stick in your head for days. // 6
Lyrics: Similar to the rest of the albums sound, the singing on Uplifter is in the same vein of every other 311 release over the last two decades. Nick Hexum's chorus-heavy vocals coupled with the quick rhymes of S.A. Martinez have proven to be one of the band's trademark sounds there is just no mistaking them. They are just another part of the consistent formula, and in most cases, it works.
On the other hand, however, lyrically Uplifter is a disaster, and an ugly one at that. And its not just that a few songs spoil what would otherwise be a solid album - tasteless, meaningless, and bland lyrics are rampant, overshadowing the positive aspects of the album, dragging it down to the murky depths of what could even be simply called half-assed writing.
Take the cringe-worthy Two Drops in the Ocean, as the finest example: Thinking of you / It all comes in view / I believe we came from the same cloud / Two drops in the ocean / Tell me again / The story of when we / we will be together one day. / We're two of a kind / Forever we've been combined / Though the current will pull us apart / Two drops in the ocean. Really? This doesn't come close to even their last album or really any of the eight from the last 20 years. Even the album's first single, the positive, feel-good Hey You, falls short of not just expectations but even the standard the band set in the past. Sure the album may be more geared towards their high-energy shows, but even taking that into consideration, there is a gaping hole where meaning should be. // 3
Overall Impression: With the rapidly changing state of the music industry today and in particular the short-lifespan of both trends and artists, it is remarkable that 311 have endured the ups and downs of over 20 years. They were there for the rise and fall of nu-metal. They were there for the pop-punk explosion and subsequent transition to emo. They were there when indie finally broke through to the masses. And through it all, they have maintained a tremendous fan-base while putting out one hit after the other. Uplifter is the culmination of this consistency, an album that plays on their strengths, particularly in concert.
And while there is something to be said for consistency, after 20 years the same formula begins to come across as flat and worn-out. A new variable is needed every so often to spice things up and keep the music fresh. Unfortunately for the band this time around, however, the only noticeable addition to the formula is an ugly, lyrical turn. Despite all this, there are a few redeeming songs that help keep Uplifter from completely sinking. Daisy Cutter and Golden Sunlight have become fast favorites of mine that seem to stay fresh after several listens.
In short, Uplifter has something to offer for every 311 fan. Whether its through songs that you can cut-loose and just rock out to or songs that create the perfect soundtrack for sipping drinks on the beach, there is something for everyone. But with their trademark style growing older and their lyrics losing all but the slightest semblance of meaning, 311's style is growing stale and needs serious reworking before album #10. // 6
- Chris McDonald (c) 2009