311 returns to its roots – blending rock, reggae, rap

Before Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit started selling millions of albums by rapping over alternative music, 311 had been doing the same thing for years.

And after what many might call a hiatus on its last effort, Transistor, 311 returned with a more solid performance on Soundsystem (Capricorn).

Perhaps the most prolific alternative band of the 1990s (the group has produced 10 albums), 311 became known more for its energetic live performances than its work in the studio. Part of that may be the aftermath of 311’s self-titled album, one of the masterpieces of the decade – it’s hard to top great work.

But on Soundsystem, 311 often blends the rap, rock and reggae flavors that brought the band to the top. One of the strengths of 311’s best music is the combination of several elements – solid reggae stylings by singer Nick Hexum, an equal hit of rap from SA (Douglas Martinez) and some driving guitar riffs from Timothy Mahoney.

And these things all come together in many songs on the album like Come Original. Inspired singing by Hexum and inspired rhyming by SA carry the song over some punk guitar parts and funk bass – combining four elements that normally wouldn’t go together. 311 throws shout-outs to bands who do come original and tells other bands how to come original in what amounts to the alternative equivalent to a rap boast. We do it non-stop and then we do it again Hexum brags in the song.

The band risks falling into the trap of going too soft with a few songs in the middle of the album. Large in the Margin is a good song, but it starts the descent. It has the interesting juxtaposition of some soft singing over a very heavy guitar part, while Flowing and Life’s Not a Race are more vibey songs that are not 311’s strong suit. Stuck in the middle of these songs is Can’t Fade Me, an energetic song that makes you want to throw yourself in to a mosh pit, even though you are sitting by yourself listening to the CD in your room.

The album picks up again with the eighth track, Sever. The song has the fast pace and hard edge on which 311 thrives. What works so well on this song is the movement back and forth between Hexum’s singing to SA’s raps. The lyrics on this album are also a little deeper than previous 311 efforts, with Sever being case and point. It seems like an odd idea for a half-rap, half-reggae song to relate the frustration and confusion that result from the end of a long relationship, but this song does it. Hexum laments that There’s no one that could cure you like she does, and SA sympathizes: Staring at the door thinking/about the mess your in/In your couch sinking deep/Over the girl that’s gone.

The staccato drum beats, guitar riffs and rapping all play off each other in Evolution to create a sound that is strange but works for 311. After taking a detour like the middle of the album did with Leaving Babylon, the album finishes strong with some hard rocking songs that are 311’s meat and potatoes.

311 is often at the top of its game on this album, with a few lapses that are not the group’s best work. But if you fell in love with the band because of songs like All Mixed Up and Down, you’ll find the fast-paced rap, reggae and rock sound on Soundsystem that 311 has mastered.

311 is playing at The Nation Nov. 6.

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