10 Years, 100 Songs: #81. “I Got to Tell You Something…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 9, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
I had a revelation of sorts while at a rare live music excursion a few summers ago with my brother and his friends to see 311. I’d always viewed the band as being somewhat underrated, but seeing the crowd at the show, I realized that it was only rock critics and their traditionally indie-listening followers that disparage the band–everyone else loves 311. They appeal to punk kids because of their energy and their skater tendencies, they appeal to metal kids because of their volume and aggression, they appeal to jam band kids because of their musical virtuosity and penchant for blazing, and they appeal to frat boys for just about all of the above. Hell, even hip-hop fans could probably respect the reggae influences, the DJing and the occasional good-faith efforts at rapping by S.A. Martinez (maybe). Genre-blending in rock was certainly nothing unique at the turm of the millennium, but 311 had the advantage of not sounding like a bunch of dilettantes mixing and matching from their favorite cultures–they just sounded like 311, which is why they’ve been able to survive on rock radio doing largely the same thing for a decade and a half.
“Amber” is pretty far from 311’s most representative song, but it’s probably their best, and is probably the one that most non-fans of the band (or of any of the musical subcultures listed above) could begrudgingly accept as being not half-bad. A dubby, dreamy love song, “Amber” was the first of 311’s big singles to be unreservedly sweet, completely bypassing Martinez’s hip-hop inflections for something vaguely resembling straight-up balladry. And it is. So. Pretty. I can’t think of too many other songs from the 00s that can just put me under for three and a half minutes like this one. At the very least, it demonstrates that, while being unworthy of accepting any sort of “thinking man’s _____” honors (disqualified automatically by any number of the song’s often cringeworthy lyrics), 311 were always towards the top of their peers when it came to sheer songcraft.
Maybe even moreso, though, it’s the production. 311 records have always sounded great. The bass punctures, the guitars glide with Detroit efficiency, the drums echo for days and days. Within the first two seconds of “Amber,” I’m already in full-on swoon. That guitar line, that stunning reverberation, wah-wah’d to the point of sounding like one of Charlie Brown’s teachers–it sounds huge but totally ethereal, like a gorgeous hot-air balloon. Then the heavy-but-not-anchoring bass comes in underneath for support, the perfectly mic’d drums begin to crackle, and even before lead singer Nick Hexum even gets in word one, “Amber” is already one of the best love songs of the decade. Of course, Hexum’s word one is among the song’s most key–“Brainstorm…” It’s stated plainly, as if it was a point into itself. And in a way, it is–“Brainstorm” is just about the perfect one-word summation of how the song’s first thirty seconds feel to listen to.
Now, this is a love song, so it couldn’t be nothing but airy bliss-outs and mental cloudiness. Indeed, “Amber” is actually pretty simple in that respect–Hexum loves girl, isn’t quite sure how to tell her about it, decides to write a song instead–a general formatting of which Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke would be proud to call their own. But it’s also a 311 song, so it’s told mostly in stoner-speak–lots of half-thoughts, some ambiguously connected phrases, and a main selling point of “Amber is the color of your energy.” It’s not exactly the most traditional way of saying “I love you,” but you’d be foolish to deny its effectiveness. As a color, I’m not even really positive what amber looks like–golden brownish, maybe?–but it certainly sounds pretty, and the fact that the word “amber” also doubles as a pretty girl’s name (I actually thought the song was being sung to someone named “Amber” the first bunch of times I heard it) helps to that end as well. And the song does dispense with the mushiness a little on the pre-choruses (“Launched a thousand ships in my heart,” “Your voice rings like a bell”), so maybe it’s for the best to have a more subtle chorus.
All that said, the most important part of the chorus comes before the “amber” line: “Wooooah-ohhhh…” Simply put, 311 used vocal harmonies better than any hard rock band since Alice in Chains, and just about any song of theirs prominently featuring Hexum and Martinez enganged in sweet harmony is almost guaranteed to be a winner, “Amber” being perhaps the most textbook example. The most striking ones actually appear later on the bridge, in the song’s one moment of doubt, where the guitars get a little minor and the harmonies get sharper, sounding so eerily beautiful that it feels a little bit like showing off–“You live too faaaaaar awayyy-ay-ay…” It doesn’t last long–the song’s too feel-good to stay in limbo for long–and soon the guitars and harmonies are as bright-sounding as ever. Ultimately, the song ends where it begins: “Brainstorm, keep me away from the norm / Iiiii got to tell you something.” I always liked that the song ended that way–makes the whole thing feel even loopier.
As obvious a love song as “Amber” was, it wasn’t nearly as obvious as what would come soon after–“Love Song,” a cover of the Cure classic which was even wispier and more sentimental (though far less indelible) than “Amber,” which even managed to get 311 on the pop charts for the first time. They haven’t done much of note since (the recent “Hey You” video is kind of cute, but the song is only memorable in patches, and often cringeworthy), but as stated earlier, have reached a kind of lifetime achievement status on rock radio, where songs will get played almost regardless of quality. I can’t really complain–311 wrote their ticket with a decade’s worth of quality hits, and really could’ve merited it off “Amber” alone. Consider this: do you know who “Amber” was originally written to? Nicole Scherzinger, she currently of the Pussycat Dolls (though then just a back-up singer for Days of the New, of all bands)–who is one of the ten best looking women on the planet now at age 31, and was only 22 or 23 when the song was written, likely at the very mind-boggling peak of her hotness. It’s a surprising coupling, but in terms of the song, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? I know I’d be disappointed if I found out that the song was about anyone less.
The List So Far:
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”