The Official Rock Critic 411 on 311 isn't pretty. They're an all-white funk/
rock/ rap/ reggae outfit on the frat-boy tip that's never met a Beastie Boys
rhyme scheme they didn't like.
What the critics don't know, the fans understand. Thanks to a
tireless touring schedule and infectious earworms such as "All Mixed Up" and
"Beautiful Disaster," 311 have built a loyal fan base and
successfully entered the mainstream. In fact, all of their five studio
albums has gone at least gold: their 1995 self-titled record went
triple platinum and Transistor (1997) hit the million-seller mark.
Which brings us to Soundsystem, a cornucopia of crushing metal riffs,
mosh pit-friendly funk grooves, positive-energy rap and reggae
rhythms that the quintet worked on for a year straight. I've already read a
couple of negative reviews of this album, both of which cited the current
glut of funk-rock-rap hybrids and rehashed the statements in the first
paragraph of this review. But you know what? F--k 'em! They're wrong.
Admittedly, Soundsystem isn't a revelation, but it is every
bit as enjoyable as 311. Especially effective here are co-producers
Hugh Padgham and Scotch Ralston's fine-tuning of the dub effects the band
toyed with on Transistor.
Soundsystem is the kind of album that's great to have along during
lengthy drives. There's never a lag, there's enough variety that the songs
don't all sound alike and there's a ton of sing-a-long material.
Album-opener "Freeze Time" (RealAudio excerpt) sets the feel for the rest of the album, as
blunt, fast-paced metal riffs and squealing guitars shift
quickly from ska grooves to funk passages to hip-hop loops to
devil-horns-in-the-air rock movements. "Come Original" continues the
pattern, though the reggae influence is much more pronounced, especially in
the vocals of Nick Hexum. Later in the album, "Life's Not A Race" tips the
skully cap to Santana while the beginning bars of "Flowing" and "Livin' &
Rockin" (RealAudio excerpt) suggest that 311 could have some fun with Big Beat.
The 311 sound is tight. Their raps, however, are just terrible. It's
rare to find rappers who can change their styles once those styles have
been established, and Hexum and DJ/ rapper SM Martinez are no exception. It
shouldn't come as a surprise that 311's biggest hits are mostly sung, and
the best tracks on this album contain no rapping at all. By the time
Martinez lets loose with "My computer is future shockin'/ Download this and
you'll start talking/ Upgraded, you're now walking" on the
digital-era anthem "Evolution" the listener may wish to invent
software to digitally remove the rap vocals from Soundsystem. On the
other hand, the aggressive rap on "Livin' & Rockin'" is a great way to close
the album, and the dancehall lyrical grinds on "Come Original" and "Strong
All Along" are very nicely done.
So, whatever you do, don't believe the hype, believe the grooves Soundsystem has plenty of 'em.