Monday, March 17, 2014

Stereolithic is 311 doing what they do best - and that's a good thing.

I’m about to go out on a limb here. As for how, we'll get to that shortly. Stereolithic is 311’s album #11.  It’s their first foray into indie self-release territory, and a reunion with producer Scotch Ralston, whose presence hasn't been heard on a 311 album since 1999’s Soundsystem.  I say going out on a limb because most of what I've read so far trashes it for reasons that make me wonder if the people trashing it even listened to the same album.

In the 6-8 month span or so leading up to the album’s release, rumors floated that this album would touch on “darker” themes.  This came as quite the surprise indeed, given this band’s predilection for funk-reggae-rap-rock fusions overflowing with joy and upbeat feelings.  What the actual album reveals is a bit of dabbling, but it doesn't turn into a funeral dirge along the way.  In a twist that is expected from a band like 311, they turn their lyrical focus to themes of confusion, uncertainty, and a somewhat forced-sounding combo of “ode to simpler times + rant against climate change" - among other left turns of theme. This and other semi-off place sounding sentiments are just a handful on an album that otherwise is well done end to end.

Bob Rock may have succeeded in fusing a heavier dose of sturm und drang into 311’s Uplifter and Universal Pulse.  It made for a nice change of pace, but even so, this insistence on crunch above all else drowned out some of the more mellow grooves that 311 was known for (“India Ink” likely would have sounded like more of a ballad with anyone else at the boards.)  On this album the presence of Scotch Ralston is apparent from the get-go.  “Ebb and Flow” is classic 311 teleported from the 1990’s, but with 20+ years of experience behind them to make it sound like a far-improved version of that 1990’s flavor 311.  “Five of Everything” is a withering slap at crass consumerism delivered with the tongue-in-cheek flair that 311 does so well.  “Showdown” brings a bit of classic 90’s bratty 311 braggadocio and swagger - albeit with much of the “bratty” scrubbed out in favor of a little bit of “veterans showing you how it’s done” bravado in its place.  And while most censorship can come across cheesy, a little self censorship for humor’s sake gives “Make It Rough” a little much needed brevity (“Shut the front door,” anyone?)  Further on the band dips into more straight-up positivity with “Simple True” and even summons a sense of frenetic urgency on “The Call.”  Once again, these are not songs that suggest a brooding, gloomy affair.  The rumors did prove to be true, some darker themes are dealt with on this album, but all are dealt with through the lens of overcoming adversity in all its various flavors.  Considering the source, this is only logical.

Universal Pulse had one of 311’s best closing numbers with “And a ways to go…” but Stereolithic makes a strong case for knocking that one out with “Tranquility.”  Even dabbling as it does in a very slight bit of autotune, it’s just the right kind of cool-off song to wrap up an album that spends its running time toggling neatly between ballads and more sprightly fare.  Even the short end track with wind chimes doesn’t feel hackneyed or tacked on for effect - it just works, pure and simple.  311 has turned in a fine batch of songs here - and makes this listener look forward to seeing what they’re doing when they hit the 30 year mark - and then some.

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