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“311: A Criticism Compendium”

Most notable battler of evil alien life forms: oh yeah, it’s 311! Oh yeah, it’s 3- it’s 3- it’s 311! Like it or not, 311 just won’t seem to go away, continuing their veritable rocking-in-the-free-world type activity, and now, on their new album MOSAIC, they have the exact same lineup they did 23 years ago for their second project together, Grassroots. You’ve gotta admit, that kind of member longevity is pretty amazing in and of itself (I think there have been like 22 different members of Jethro Tull and I make a regular practice on this site of bemoaning the absence of original Third Eye Blind guitarist Kevin Cadogan). We are here after all talking about a band which has an entire festival devoted to them (New Orleans’ “311 Day”), a festival for that matter which takes place neither in the band’s hometown nor their eventual residence, hence making New Orleans, you might say, their home away from home away from home. Look at THESE netherworld automatons gravitating geographically for music’s own sake! What does it all mean? We shall see.
Speaking of Grassroots, we might as well start there. This was an album I used to put on and listen to straight through, an album which would cut through the general malaise of my hometown in high school like a hot knife through butter. It was cathartic and rocking to stack up next to other bands like Nirvana in terms of “balls” and “muscle” while though perhaps not boasting the melody Nirvana did, actually featured lyrics which were constructive and world-pleasing, not just narcissistic and nihilistic. Grassroots offers, for instance, one perplexing song called “Offbeat Bare A**” wherein Nicholas Hexum keeps busting into these polymorphous raps over a sort of reggae-metal groove (they pull it off, I’m tellin’ you), doling out such destruction as “When we’re on the road P-Nut rolls it up / Throw me a joint on stage / Whassup / I will tell a cop that I know my fu**In’ rights / And we can match wits all night” and “The war on drugs may be well intentioned / But it falls fu**in’ flat when you start to mention / An overcrowded prison where a rapist gets paroled / To make room for a dude who has sold / A pound o’ weed / To me that’s a crime / Here’s to good people doin’ time y’all”. Say what you want about the juvenile or frat-boy aspects of the music, this is white boy American music diction which has caught on like wildfire, and with every reason.
There’s one more song I care to mention right now before I get into summing up all the criticism which has been leveled for or against the band over the years, since their genesis so long ago in the early ‘90s, and that is “Sweet.” Schizophrenia, to an extent, I think, is necessary to make it in life — because who would want to just meet themselves over and over again, who would want to go home at the end of the day to that same “personality” you used just now all day to lower yourself and therefore ingratiate? 311’s vocalist Nick Hexum (also known as Nix Hex) walks schizophrenia like a dog on a leash in beautiful songs like “Sweet”: “We’re fallin’ much too soon / I know but that’s how it goes / There’s someone better out there / For you and me / Can’t wait to get on the road / And feel the shows / And be like / Hey number number one and two and three / I don’t mean to brag and I don’t mean to boast / But I am the that could give you the most”. I mean, some things are just bada**, that’s all there is to it, and you could call it a lack of sensitivity for the band’s longevity (I’ve actually heard the entire concept of sensitivity derided as applied to today’s society and world), but this element of schizophrenia, the wild semantic swings and confusion to whom he’s actually talking, squares the band away with the crazy life of touring, a life which has obviously done in some more sensitive types. And sure enough, 311 are a great live band, doing certain creative things like busting into these communal percussions solos where they’re all standing in a row parallel to the front of the stage, facing front. Also, “Sweet” happens to be a well-constructed tune, with the help probably of producer Ron Saint Germaine given its structural exemplarity and once again, mix of laid-back reggae, in the verse, and prog metal, albeit slightly ambient prog metal, in the chorus.
Well, I think I’ve at least established that 311 is a noteworthy band to discuss in the late-
’10s, so from here I think I’ll ground this discussion in the current day. I’d just like to mention one more tidbit, though: the next most important episode of their career is undeniably Soundsystem’s “Flowing” and in particular the scintillating video which depicts a night of partying gone wrong and a trip to jail, all over that unpredictable signature brand of, you guessed it, party rocking (except 311 never apologized for it).
I decided to write this post because 311 is a very misunderstood maligned outfit, often dismissed as the brainless detritus of frat boys or whatever. One thing’s for sure: we’re not living in a time when it’s chic to be white and male. 311 is about as white and male as you get, although I personally don’t think they’re without their jazz influences. Their self-titled album from 1995 is important for having bequeathed the world the excellent hit single “Down” (I have a funny memory of my 60-year-old ice-cream-truck-driving boss rocking out to “Down” on this mix CD as he sat there doing paperwork at like 11:30 in the morning or so). So I think I’ll start here with the examination of criticism, since everybody knows, nobody ever hates a band who’s obscure, no matter how bad they suck.
Wow, it seems that even 311’s review realms are laid back: all I get from Wikipedia is four stars out of five,” courtesy of one “Allmusic,” and “(average)” (sic), from Rolling Stone, who by the way I’d thought doled out-of-five-stars album scores. Well, playing dumb constitutes a large portion of life, as everybody knows. Still, I am not going to follow suit: I will try perhaps this “Allmusic” site, or maybe the Metacritic site, for a full run-down of what the veritable American bourgeoise thought of this album. By the way, I do remember reading a seven-out-of-10 review of Soundsystem in what I believe was New Music Chicago magazine. Check that… I don’t know why I even try to use these stupid sites. One of them even started playing a video of Dr. Phil talking about diabetes. Also, one of them did that stupid “custom search” thing where it takes you back to Google… ack.
Time for plan b: keeping it in Google alone, with publications already in mind for my searches. My search of “rolling stone 311 self titled” unearthed one of these cool PDF reprints of the original review (which you can sometimes find on spin.com too, although there you get prints of the actual full magazine pages). Looks like 311 barely skated by testicles intact here, as Kyra Burton puts it: “Not all funk-metal sucks, as 311 are out to prove.” Whoo! I wouldn’t want to verbally meet her in a dark alley. To my delight, she did indeed tout the record’s producer, Ron St. Germain, who, as I didn’t know up to now, had also worked with Living Colour [1], Bad Brains and Soundgarden. So they got a good review in RS and they scored an MTV blockbuster with album opener “Down,” but as we know, Pitchfork entirely ignored them, and the A.V. Club seems a veritable tank of piranhas when faced with the L.A. quintet, preliminarily speaking. But, let’s see what else we uncover.
Fast forward to 1997 and Transistor and the minds that be are not quite so kind: A.V. Club mutters “unfavorable,” Rolling Stone asserts “two stars out of five” and ET grants the album an “F” (ouch!), curiously featured Sputnikmusic, meanwhile, bestowing an interesting five-stars-out-of-five rating. Now, I’d hardly call Transistor an instant classic, but there are some good songs on it, like the blissed-out reggae pop of “Prisoner” and the funk-punk roller coaster that is the beastly “What Was I Thinking,” crafted around the verse mantra “The word that I heard was so absurd / I can’t believe it came from my lips”. It seems like the bass line intro to this song courtesy of the resounding victory in nomenclature “P-Nut” would be enough in itself to tide people over, but remember this was sort of a golden age in rock. [2]
2001’s From Chaos gave us what is probably the band’s second most popular song to date, “Amber,” but I think I’ll leave this album alone, despite its wielding of a successful titled track and “You Wouldn’t Believe”… the last 311 project I’ll care to handle as in conversation with the critics is 1999’s Soundsystem. Now, as I’ve declared, I’m a professed fan of “Flowing,” having ranked its video the 14th best of all time on this site, and always have been since I first heard its eclectic mix of punk, metal and pop melody all within a lithe, pliable form which seems to crumble in your hands as you listen. The reviews for Soundsystem are characteristically unfavorable as ever, despite its issuing of arguably successful funk-reggae masquerades as “Life’s Not a Race,” “Large in the Margin” [3] and the lead single “Come Original.” At this point, to be honest, I’m just wowed by how much music this band has put out [4], to the point where I don’t even feel the need to listen to the new album, prolly ‘cause… ya know, I don’t need to. This being said, I can easily see this band eventually morphing into something similar to what we now have on Facebook and the likes with Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” where everybody is constantly mentioning it, but only in order to make fun of it. It’s like, it couldn’t be that you just LIKE THE SONG, could it? Heavens no!
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[1] Yes, that band for their moniker actually assumes the British spelling of “color,” though I’m really not sure why. I think they suck, anyway, to be honest.
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[2] All the kids were hippie chicks all hypocrites, arguably, any way.
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[3] I just noticed Doug Martinez’ rap on this cut reminds me hilariously of the one in the middle of Jacko’s “Black or White.”
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[4] I remember this sort of self-proclaimed tastemaker at IU playing a bunch of Al Green on Kazaa and then busting into an inspirational hot-wax-on-the-nips rendition of “Amber.”

 

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