311 – Universal Pulse (2011)

Posted: July 16, 2011 in Music

When a band has a twenty-plus year career, millions of dedicated fans, and a back catalog of some of the best music on the planet, it would be really easy to just cash in on a few live performances from time to time and chug out a live album or retrospective of greatest hits and call it a day.

But not if you happen to be 311. These California-via-Omaha rockers have done nothing but stay true to their art and work harder than almost any band going today. And it has been gritty determination from day one. There are no reality shows here, and no soap opera drama among band mates. Instead, 311 have remained hungry though their years, constantly trying to get better, create great music, and be a heard voice in the music scene – and their perseverance has definitely paid off.

These guys epitomize the “band” relationship, and that type of cohesiveness translates to their music – and pours over into the fan base as well. 311 has always “understood” the one thing that many bands seem to forget at times – that without the following of fans, they would be nothing. And the fans have responded back. Go to a 311 show and feel the vibe – it’s all about togetherness and having a good time. The authentic, sincere love they have for their fans has actually opened a few doors for them recently. The band has severed all ties with labels, instead opting to form their own – 311 Records – for future releases.

“We’ve realized we don’t need a major label,” vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum says. “As solid as our fan base is, whether or not we have a hit song we’re still going to have people showing up at our shows. We’ve erased any feelings of desperation or fear.”

That fear has been replaced with a very personal connection with their fans. Fresh off the 311 Caribbean Cruise this spring, the band is set to embark on their ninth straight summer headlining tour of filling ampitheatres coast-to-coast, this time with Sublime with Rome (who we featured last week here) along for the ride. Always considered a great live band, the following has become more of an “experience” than a concert, with the guys being known to play sets over 4 hours in length at times. Grateful Dead, anyone?

Outside their odyssey of touring, 311 has maintained a steady pace of album releases over the years as well, and the time has come again for some new songs. Those come in the form of the band’s tenth studio release, July 19th’s Universal Pulse. As one of the more anticipated summer releases this year, I was eager to give this album a listen – and with that accomplished, here’s the skinny…

Universal Pulse opens with Time Bomb, an upbeat rocker that immediately grabs your attention with the familiar vibe and energy that could only be 311. The tag team vocals between Hexum and SA Martinez are as tight as ever, but we are immediately treated to one of the albums many twists. Hexum actually takes over the “rapping” element here, which is usually Martinez’ calling card, but it adds some extra punch to an already solid track.

“Wild Nights” carries over with a bit more of a heavy vibe courtesy of guitarist’s Tim Mahoney’s relentlessness. The reggae/island vibe is noticeably abandoned for the most part, but the strong vocal harmonies make up for it. In typical 311 fashion, the message is uplifting and simple. It’s all about enjoying life and those around you, and it is the perfect representation of the attitude this band holds.

The first single off the album is “Sunset In July,” a smooth rocker that is already making a ton of chart noise. The groove is infectious, the rhythm contagious, and the execution flawless. It’s not the most diverse track here, but a great “welcome back” to the band, as well as the best season of the year.

P-Nut on bass and Chad Sexton on the kit march us into the most introspective track on the album, “Trouble.” Hexum takes all the vocals here in a tale that is part history, part confession, and all honesty. Considering the glamorization of drug-use and addiction in all types of music, this came across as heart-felt and genuine. It’s slowed down a bit, but it helps draw you to the lyrics, which were obviously the focus here – and made it a standout track.

“Count Me In” is fuzzy and funky, and the lyrics sharply maneuver in and out of the most complex arrangement on the album. The shifts were smart here, and you get the band hitting several different styles along the way. My guess is that this will be the second single, based on the songs accessibility and overall vibe. It is an excellent track, but it’s not the album’s best offering. That’s yet to come.

If there’s a track here that will find detractors, it’s “Rock On.” Not because it’s bad, but because it is – well – different. As the title suggests, it’s a bit on the heavy side – but that’s not the issue. What makes it unique is that while the rest of the album has been positive and uplifting, this is a bit more dark. Even the structure takes on a more serious persona – and feels a bit too complex in comparison. It reminded me more of The Red Hot Chili Peppers than 311. For me, it was interesting on so many levels that it maintained the high level this record has set forth, but I don’t see this being played live often or revered as on of the band’s more memorable tracks. I’m all for something new and expansive, though, so I’m calling it a success – despite what you may read elsewhere.

The best track on the album for me was “Weightless.” By a landslide. It not only carries that familiar 311 vibe, but had a profound message behind it. Lyrics are always up for interpretation – that’s what makes music so beautiful. That said, to me it sounded like the band making peace with the fact that while they haven’t been the most commercially successful band the last 20 years, that they have had a memorable run. They realize that they have their fans, they have each other, and that no one is any better or worse than the next guy (or band?) It’s this type of grounding factor that makes 311 so easy to get behind. Beyond the lyrics, the spacey, flowing groove was as tight as anything else in the band’s history. Epic win.

“And A Ways To Go” is a slower, more ethereal track that floats around with a relaxing, psychedelic feel through the first minute, then hands off to Martinez’ trademark head-bobbing rhyme. Near the 3:11 mark (ironically), the track shifts into a funk-laden bass solo that builds into a pretty grand and energetic close. “Come on, yeah, it’ll be alright. We’re going to take a ride – I don’t know if we’ll come back” echoes through the end, and it couldn’t be a better statement. Togetherness and mutual love is the message of this whole album, and this author is in – for the long haul.

311 has once again succeeded with another great entry into their legacy, and while the album only contains eight tracks, they are all on point. Quality beats quantity any day, but the band is on your side here. Due to the brevity of a 30 minute play time, they are selling the disc for $7.99 – which is the best eight bucks and change you’ll spend all year.

We don’t give out too many perfect scores at The Nutwork, but the experience was unmatched here. Universal Pulse is easily one of the top three albums of the year so far, and will please the millions of fans while adding plenty more along the way.

10/10

Tracklist:
01. Time Bomb
02. Wild Nights
03. Sunset in July
04. Trouble
05. Count Me In
06. Rock On
07. Weightless
08. And a Ways to Go

Buy it at Amazon

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