It’s not hard to be intrigued by the title of Don’t Tread on Me, the latest album from Omaha, Nebraska’s 311. Its evocation of the famous slogan from the American Revolution-era Gadsden flag would seem to be a statement of unity, not to mention a statement of defiance — that is, 311 hasn’t changed in lineup or in sound since 1991, and they’re not about to start now. Haters need not apply, or something like that. The browns and yellows of 311’s album art indicate something more distinguished and more lasting than the latest fly-by-night trend, even as the imagery those colors portray is the typical 311 mix of the psychedelic and the perfectly natural. Don’t Tread on Me is as much a challenge as it is a declaration, given the implied threat of force if its teller’s advice is ignored, much as Revolution-era Americans had already proven their willingness to fight for their independence.
Of course, it’s just as possible that the band just thought Don’t Tread on Me was a badass title. In hindsight, that was probably it.
The overgrown boys that comprise 311 have never been ones for terribly deep thoughts or historical reference. No, 311 would much rather employ a “live for today” mentality, throw out some positive vibes, have a good time, and toss in a dash of the seven-leafèd devil for good measure. Don’t Tread on Me is 311’s eighth studio album, and despite its confrontational title, it reveals a maturation in sound for the veteran partiers. Every song is tightly wound and well-produced, even as the overall feel is lighter than previous 311 efforts, save a couple of ill-advised ventures into social consciousness and hard rock.
Nowhere is the new 311 more evident than in “Waiting”, a fantastic little pop song that uses a chord progression in its chorus most commonly associated with barbershop a cappella. “Waiting” is a lite-reggae pop song that just oozes fun and happiness, even as its lyrics tell the story of an unrequited (at least for now) love. If SA Martinez’s end-of-line ad-libs don’t bring a smile to your face, you must be a Radiohead fan. “Frolic Room” is a fun little tune that sounds like typical 311 until a chorus hits that oddly seems a bit borrowed from a Weezer tune. In a good way. “Speak Easy” (which is the album’s requisite “Be Yourself!” anthem) floats along on a chill melody and a nifty, squelchy synth sound. In fact, most of these songs “float” more than they drive forward, using more recent hits like “Amber” and their cover of The Cure’s “Love Song” as reference points in favor of, say, “Down” or “Do You Right”.
The dichotomy between the two types of songs is further emphasized on the few occasions that 311 does try to throw in a hard-rocker for the old-schoolers. “It’s Getting OK Now” is a thrashy bit of adrenaline that’s not too hard to swallow given its best-is-yet-to-come lyrical vibe and some solid guitar work from Tim Mahoney, even if it does sound incredibly out of place amidst all of the mellow. More egregious is the waste of space known as “Solar Flare”, which I think is supposed to be some kind of socially aware statement of rebellion against, um, the man or something. Martinez raps lines like “Porno shows, MTV hoes, and on the radio / It’s the same fucking song / That’s just the way it goes”, alternating with Nick Hexum wondering “When did our leaders / Become bottom feeders?” There’s no unified target for all of the Linkin Park-esque angst going around. “Solar Flare” is a disaster, and not a beautiful one.
Mercifully, “Solar Flare” is an anomaly in this bottle of happy pills. 311’s flaws may be well documented — they use the same rhythm for every damn guitar riff, their snare drums always sound a bit like hitting the side of a garbage can, Hexum and Martinez are, erm, passable as singers — but their attitude carries them far. Don’t Tread on Me is the latest chapter in a long history for this band, a chapter that sees them getting more comfortable in an aging skin. No, they’re not identifying with the fathers of the Revolution. They couldn’t care less about all that. And honestly, at least for one more album, that’s okay.