This is the first of many record and/or concert reviews readers will see from me on joltleft.com. There are many places that one may find reviews in either print, broadcast, or electronic forms. However, this will be one of the few places where an honest, and ”sponsored by no-one” review may be found anywhere in the industry. Of course you have Pitchfork where reviews may be found on the Internet. However, being that Pitchfork is about as objective as Fox News and is made up of what has to be made up of those kids we all remember from school that thought “everything sucked” except for maybe The Cure, or some KFMDM remix of a song from Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty Hate Machine.” From what I recall, I can’t think of a record that Pitchfork has viewed as favorable or even liked with the exception of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.” If Pitchfork isn’t your thing, then one may always stick with print reviews from major magazines which are sometimes paid for by the record company promoting the album as a form of print payola to drum up sales for a release. Welcome to a reviewing process that is about the music, the evolution of the band making the music, and the impact the music has on the listener.
311 (three eleven)’s roots go back to Omaha, Nebraska, around 20 years ago. They gained notoriety and broke into the mainstream with the single “Down” from their 3rd record, entitled simply: “311.” What I always found magnetic about 311 was their truly original sound. Picture it like this….If Morrissey suddenly grew dreadlocks and joined Bad Brains for no apparent reason. I found it odd that a band from Nebraska’s sound took me “to summertime” and “to the beach” in my mind. They’ve always exuded a mix of major chords and reggae riffs combined with Rastafarian raps and melodical harmonies that take the listener to a different place or state of mind. Tracks such as “Do You Right” and “Come Original” have always been perfect examples of this. I can’t hear these tracks without wanting to be on a beach somewhere drinking a Pacifico and admiring the beauty of the surf and the women walking in front of it.
That’s the energy that 311 always brought to the table in the 1990s. They had flashes of that in spurts in the 2000s, but as far as albums as a whole in the past decade, those 4 records “From Chaos,” “Evolver,” “Don’t Tread On Me,” & Uplifter” could be considered disappointments. They all had high points, such as one of the best tracks of 311’s career, “Sometime Jacks Rule the Realm” on “Evolver,” and the beachy-reggae radio hit “Amber” on “From Chaos” that is also a perfect example of the listener being able to close their eyes and find themselves on a tropical shore at sunset. All of those records had flashes of brilliance, but pale in comparison to the “from start to finish” solid records of the previous decade such as 1994’s “Music” that was 11 tracks (and one hidden one) of a good time ride about smoking weed, having sex, and throwing down.
Where 311 has sometimes gone wrong were the “boring” parts of some of their records. There have been songs that seemed to be filler. It doesn’t fit to put a 6 minute rambling stoner anthem (with echoing vocals purposely made to only sound right when the listener is stoned out of their mind) in the middle of two songs that get the listener out of their chair and ready to have a good time. Every 311 record seems to have that moment. If you aren’t in the right state of mind, that can be a downer.
Welcome to 2011’s “Universal Pulse.” All killer and no filler. “Universal Pulse” is an 8 track album that leaves the band nowhere to hide. There aren’t three 6-minute lingering reggae stoner anthems on this record to fill up space. This record is as straight to the point as I‘ve ever heard, and that’s definitely a good thing. Whether 311 did it on purpose or not, they did something that I have recommended that a lot of bands do, which is to notbullshit the listener. If you only have 8 strong tracks, then lie down 8 strong tracks and let it be. For example, how much more of a hit would “Stadium Arcadium” have been if the Red Hot Chili Peppers kept it to 1 disc and cut all the weak tracks? 311 didn’t attempt to write an introspective concept album. What came out of the “Universal Pulse” sessions was a return to form. It was a return to the formula that made “Music,” “Grassroots,” “311,” “Transistor,” and “Soundsystem” all great albums. They wrote about what they knew, made it catchy, and added that unique mix of musical style that no other band in the world can figure out how to duplicate.
Tracks 1 & 2, “Time Bomb” and “Wild Nights,” take us back to the subject matter that made us all listen to 311 in the 1990s- having fun. Both tracks are filled with crunchy guitars, a twisting and turning rhythm section, and what has been conspicuously absent from the past few 311 records: Nick Hexum spitting rap lyrics like Damien Marley. From the onset of this record, it is apparent what 311’s goal was. It was a return to form.
These tracks are followed by what is one of the best singles to be released and a bright spot in what has been a weak year in music. “Sunset in July” is nothing less than a soundtrack to summertime. With Chad Sexton lying down a perfect tempo that is almost fit for a dance floor, this track gives me the feel of Myrtle Beach, SC or Santa Monica, CA on a sweltering day; drinking beer with sweaty girls companioned with absolutely perfect musical accompaniment. It’s particularly difficult for music to give one that kind of mindset, but it’s a very welcome return to of the 311 of old. The high point of the entire “Universal Pulse” record comes at the 2:54 mark of “Sunset In July.” In a song filled with crunchy rhythms in the form of eighth notes, the entire band (led by Tim Mahoney’s guitar) switches to power chords on the last verse and the final time the hook “watching you dancing and having the time of your life” is sang. That switch from short and choppy notes to a sustained chord can be compared to a breaking wave on the ocean. The short notes throughout the song are the buildup, and the power chord is when the wave finally breaks. At that point in the song, as the listener, I wanted more, more, and more. It’s a short few seconds of song that make the entire album.
The album continues with “Trouble.” The 4th track on “Universal Pulse” is the one that almost take us to that lull point of a slow stoner anthem, but fools us. “Trouble” is a reggae-style track that flows into a catchy lyrical refrain by Nick Hexum backed by full all-out guitar. It becomes apparent at this mid-point of the record that 311 and Nick Hexum are on a roll creating hooks on this record. They just keep coming.
The second half of the record continues with “Count Me In.” Musically complex, but easy on the listener (which isn’t something we hear very often in the music world). The opening riff says “metal” but the verse and chorus says “reggae.” We also hear Nick Hexum return to his old style of rapping rather than singing his verses as he has done over the past several years. The next track “Rock On” is a pure-on reminder of the opening track from their 1999 album “Soundsystem.” “Rock On” is filled with very heavy guitars that perfectly match the mood of P-Nut and Chad Sexton in the rhythm section. This track is the only track on the record that features a guitar solo by lead guitarist Tim Mahoney. Like everything else on “Universal Pulse” there is a little, but never too much.
The album closes with the two tracks “Weightless” and “A Ways to Go.” Weightless is the standout track for drummer Chad Sexton. Any other drummer in rock and this song would fall apart quickly. It’s a great lyrical harmony from Nick Hexum and SA Martinez combined with a very melodic guitar riff. The closing track, “A Ways to Go,” is the weakest track on the album at first glance until one takes the time to appreciate P-Nut’s bass line toward the end of the song. The bridge of the song, separated in the sixteenth notes on the bass, adds a musical complexity that ends the album with a bang.
As great as “Universal Pulse” is and as much as I enjoyed multiple listens to it in its entirety, the drawback is the technical production from Bob Rock. What many of the songs need is that deep punch. The heavy hitting bass that exists already in the tracks isn’t accented or focused upon by the production of the record. It absolutely helps the listener to import the CD into iTunes as lossless, and then set the EQ to “rock” on your iPod, iPhone, iPad, or iwhatever. It helps to better capture the punch and bass that the band surely meant to bring to the songs.
“Universal Pulse” is a return to form of the 311 of the 1990s. This record masterfully executes the “311 vibe” that their fans grew accustomed to in their early work that was in a sense deviated from in their last few albums. It’s an excellent record and what I consider a must listen album of 2011.
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Dustin M Pardue