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“Are ‘Album Tracks’ Still a Thing? Examining 311’s ‘Flowing’”

Oh, valid “album tracks” — as in tracks that are significant during a full-length run-through of an album and not mainly known as singles — they seem like such a thing of the past these days. And, of course, it’s questionable as to whether they were even a thing at all, since once perceieved, they often spawn the impetus in the listener to get on the phone and call all his friends (notice my archaic terminology even here) and champion the certain SONG that drove said enthusiasm. One example would be “The Battle of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin, which seems to have sauntered its way into all of our hearts as a gem that’s a cut above the median, but which for whatever reason doesn’t typically dictate discussions of how great that album is, as a whole.

And then, of course, there’s the separate phenomenon of people being really proud of themselves for liking certain albums. One example, and probably the most egregious case of this erudite LP pride, is Radiohead’s Kid A, which, in my experience, has failed, in discussion, even to produce one single track that’s enjoyable or enjoyed [1] [2].

Now, before I completely throw the whole enterprise under the bus, I would just like to wrest a little bit of progress from the mouth of futility and offer one tune which I do think still successfully functions as an album track. This would be “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” by Bob Dylan, and, to a lesser extent, “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” within the same album, although the latter tends to get mythologized as something semantic or discursive. As we all know, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” is way too foolish to be mythologized — in fact it acts as a satire by presenting something that manifests as horrifying, which is the sort of vapid consumerism you might find around people who have achieved New York fame, a la Bob Dylan in 1966. Regardless, what qualifies “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” as an “album track” is, well, partly, the album itself, Blonde on Blonde, the odds-on favorite for most popular album by the most deified songwriter of all time, and the fact that you pretty much never hear it when you’re not listening to the full album. 

I’m not sure, then, how I really got to 311 in life, other than that I get really pi**ed off when I see young people seeming to think that “Amber” is their most important, or definitive, song. This irksome attitude surfaced particularly when I commented on this nu metal post that 311’s self-titled album should be considered an authoritative work within this specific style. Now, the spiny, dissenting parties probably had no idea this album existed, an LP rife with trenchant distortion pedal from guitarist Tim Mahoney, and beholden to what I consider 311’s two best tracks of their career (for reasons aligning closely with presence of said effects pedal), “Brodels” and “T & P Combo.” 

Now, for old-school 311 fans, this self-titled LP (which is a little misleading because although it’s so stylistically foundational and being eponymous it’s actually their third LP as a band, following the ambitious Music and the spunky but bratty Grassroots) obviously has album tracks. The question of course is as to whether any of them are actually IMPORTANT enough to write about. I mean, for any fan of this album, if you’re like me, you always just listen to it straight through, and every song has equal clout, or weight, kind of like with Nirvana’s Bleach

And I know “Flowing” was released as a single and even has that clever video with Finch from American Pie in it and everything, but truly, it’s a song that never really got the credit it deserved. I think it was too poppy for the old-school 311 fans, who might have a proclivity for placing that orange, fiery CD right next to Rage against the Machine’s Evil Empire in their Case Logics [3], and too hard-rocking for, like, people who dress well and snort coke. Luckily for these, “Amber” came along just two short years later, to soundtrack all their poignant drives down Sunset Blvd. and opulent soirees, if you will. 

And in general, the legitimacy of Soundsystem (1999) [4] as an LP that anyone would put on and listen to straight through is probably dangling by a thread (or dangling by a piece of dental floss, to be exact), but that’s part of what I’m here to change, today. The fact is, I just put it on in work yesterday and it pretty much slayed — all of the songs were rhythmic, the mixes were all nice, within that nu metal territory that tends to be a little more rhythmic and a little less shrill or bombastic than, say, Linkin Park or Incubus, and, particularly, when “Flowing” came on, it seemed that the whole musical organism was officially growing its plumage. This is in part ironic, granted, seeing as “Flowing” follows the unbridled and excellent “Large in the Margin,” a spooky paean to the embrace of one’s own schizophrenic “voices,” the types of things the more narrow-minded or conventional might be propelled to call “demons.” But “Flowing” just stomps in with that unique rhythm, the six-eight which is more like cut time tripleted (not sure if said thing exists but it does now, maybe… that is, the eighth notes play almost no role in the chorus), like Green Day’s “Holiday” and with a similar sort of temporally rendered finality, or authority, as if to say, we went through these sessions and now this is something that only we can do. And indeed, “Flowing,” throughout, plays as nothing if not full, or fully developed, with those gorgeous background vocals almost inaudible in their undergirding of that classic chorus with the repeated theme of “Along the way / I closed my eyes”. The subject matter of this song remains obscured and in a way this is part of it’s appeal, standing, then, in comparable adjacency to “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” which, instead of masking the trauma in abstract metaphor, brings it to the fore and makes it the object of a bona fide satire, another important element of society I hope to see upheld in years to come. 

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[1] This is hardly surprising, when you think about it, seeing as that album suffers from such an identity crisis as to produce two most important tracks, “Optimistic” and “Idioteque”; as belonging to two completely disparant genres of music entirely (alternative rock and electro). 

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[2] I’m going to tentatively say that this stylistic hodgepodge actually demotes Kid A from the ability to have album tracks at all. To prove this, I’m going to offer the opposite extreme, Nirvana’s Bleach, an album so stylistically selfsame and congenitally forceful that it just can’t hide its “album tracks” under the carpet — “Scoff”; “Swap Meet”; “Mr. Moustache”; et. al. 

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[3] Sorry for the arcane reference to this brand that used to make those CD case thingies. 

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[4] I realize I’m skipping Transistor (1997) here and believe me it’s not for lack of affinity for that album, which has great tracks like “Prisoner” and “The Continuous Life.” 

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