Since forming in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1991, 311 has forged a consistent rap and metal-based sound inflected by shades of ska and reggae. You may remember the band from its huge hit "Down," which ruled rock radio for a spell in the mid-'90s. With Sound System, the band's sixth album, 311 may have finally rescued itself from the one-hit-wonder pile, but not by much.
The first single, "Come Original," is catchy, but there is an irony to calling a song "Come Original" when it's basically a retread of 311's own sounds. That point aside, one of the highlights of this record is drummer Chad Sexton, who adds a human factor often lost on the loop-heavy trendies populating radio today. On songs such as "Flowing," he rips out mad fills with dynamite precision yet is diverse enough to swing a Latin feel on "Life's Not a Race." Singer Nick Hexum has developed a positive attitude to balance out all the anger, bad news, and negative vibes in the world. DJ and rapper S.A. Martinez is an adequate talent, but he wouldn't necessarily survive a cutting contest in Brooklyn. You can take the rapper out of Nebraska, but the Midwest is still plenty evident. At a time when Detroit is upping the ante on Caucasian rapping with Kid Rock and Eminem, perhaps 311 could use a stronger effort from Martinez.
On one of the disc's strongest cuts, "Sever," the band really jells. Bassist PNut sounds glued to Sexton's kick drum. Guitarist Tim Mahoney expertly switches among styles and rhythms; one minute he's playing metal crunch, the next a panning reggae delay, and then even a shredding solo, a rarity in these days of nonplayers.
311 is in a classic rock 'n' roll trap: If the band changes, it will probably be labeled a sellout; if it stays the same, it risks redundancy or, even worse, being left behind as trends change. So with Sound System, what we have is another fine 311 record that breaks no new ground. What's interesting is watching the band that pioneered the '90s fusion of rap and rock trying to play catch-up with the offspring it spawned. Time will tell if they succeed. -- Robbie Gennet
Story of a Life
It's been nearly 30 years since singer-songwriter Harry Chapin passed away, leaving 14 albums, a cult following, and a loving family behind. Certainly he produced enough material to justify a retrospective. Unfortunately this handsome package -- which includes three discs and a whopping 47 tunes -- spreads Chapin's middling talents a bit thin.
There's always been something unabashedly sentimental about Chapin's work, as exemplified by his only true crossover hit, "Cat's in the Cradle," which rose to No. 1 in 1974. Sentiment, however, is not a quality that does well in large doses. That's not to say that Chapin's brand of literary folk deserves no tribute. But it's hard to fathom how anyone other than a true devotee wouldn't feel worn out after three-hours-plus of his earnest warbling.
Back in 1972 Chapin's edgy, seven-minute epic "Taxi" must have seemed like bracing stuff. But the track sounds awfully dated today, its drug references more quaint than shocking. "W*O*L*D," Chapin's cheeky paean to the world of radio programming, is still a fun romp, with its goofy, countrified sound. And there are other songs here that somewhat stand the test of time (the chilling ballad "Sniper," for instance, or a spunky live version of "30,000 Pounds of Bananas"). But for the most part, these are tepid folk songs that drift past with little notice.
Chapin himself was no doubt a mensch. He believed in the idea that popular music could be turned toward political ends, as a way of effecting positive change -- which comes as a welcome notion in this era of musical solipsism and hedonism. And yet his limits as a musician (a thin voice, a limited sense of melody) make it hard to slog through his oeuvre. For all its good intentions, Story of a Life would have benefited from some severe editing. -- Steve Almond
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Few people would doubt that 52-year-old Carlos Santana still has the ability to coax some amazing sounds from a guitar. But if you were to ask those same people whether Santana still had a No. 1 album in him, well, that would likely stretch some imaginations. Yet land at the top of the Billboard pop charts is exactly what Santana did recently with the release of his latest longplayer, Supernatural. And what's even more interesting is that he did it by blending his talents with those of musicians half his age.
It was 30 years ago that the young Mexican guitar player and his band recorded their first album, Santana, an eventual double-platinum monster that produced a No. 4 single, "Evil Ways." In many ways Carlos Santana has come full circle with the release of Supernatural. Much like he did in his early days in San Francisco's psychedelic music scene, the great guitarist has once again surrounded himself with an eclectic assemblage of musicians, which, on his latest effort, includes Dave Matthews, Eagle-Eye Cherry, and Mana. Supernatural combines elements of jazz, R&B, salsa, and alternative rock. Some critics have condemned the CD for having no "flow," but it is the very diversity of the disc that allows it to touch different people in different ways.
"Love of My Life," a jazzy, love ballad duet with Matthews, rolls along softly and melodically before bursting into a fiery salsa jam. "Put Your Lights On," a duet with hip-hop artist Everlast, has commercial success written all over it. Santana injects potent lead lines between acoustic guitar rhythms and the scratchy low voice of Everlast to produce a ballad with a dark and damp feel. "Smooth," featuring the vocals of Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas, and "Maria Maria," produced by Wyclef Jean and featuring the vocals of the Product G&B, are both spiced with a heavy dose of Latin flavor. Other tracks on the disc are reminiscent of Santana's earlier work, which should satisfy his longstanding followers.
And finally, imagine for a minute Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain playing a game of pickup basketball together. Sweet, huh? Well, Supernatural provides the guitar equivalent to that fantasy as Santana collaborates with Eric Clapton on a bluesy track titled "The Calling." With few words and a lot of heavenly picking, the song is an appropriate way to end a divine effort. -- David Norrie