The unlikely collaboration between the vaporwave producer and the 311 frontman feels as natural as a wedge of lime and a bottle of Corona—equal parts basic and deeply satisfying.

George Clanton knows how this looks, and he doesn’t particularly care. The Virginia-born musician has never hidden his love for 311 or the band’s co-frontman, Nick Hexum, despite how much it might confuse his fans, onlookers, and anyone else wondering how someone involved with the evolution of a niche form of electronic music (vaporwave, in Clanton’s case) ended up making a record with the dude who sang “Amber.” “They say, ‘I think it’s so funny that you make fun of 311!,’” he once told an interviewer, before clarifying, “I’m not making fun of 311. I love this stuff.”

That much is obvious. George Clanton & Nick Hexum was custom-built to showcase the things that Hexum has always done well—his gorgeous vocal harmonies, catholic taste, and, perhaps more than anything, his ability to articulate his desire to be your best bud; it could only be the product of someone who has spent meaningful time with 311’s lengthy discography. Freed from the pressures of his band’s legacy and the expectations of their still-significant fanbase, or else just more willing to get really stoned before recording than he usually is, Hexum sounds more comfortable in his skin than he has since he first jumped out of it on 1993’s “Hydroponic.” As a result, this pairing feels as natural as a wedge of lime and a bottle of Corona, equal parts basic and deeply satisfying on a hot day.

While Clanton’s music has long been haunted by the digital saudade that is a hallmark of the genre, his maximalist “vaporwave opera” Slide was built up to an at-times-staggering scale, bringing to mind My Bloody Valentine nearly as often as Macintosh Plus. With Hexum, he dials back the scope of the production without losing any of the emotional charge. At heart, Hexum is a songwriter in the classic mold, the kind of guy to put out a soul-jazz record with the regrettable title My Shadow Pages, and the formality of his writing keeps Clanton’s productions from sprawling. The concision of these songs reflects the “heavy positivity”that he’s worked hard for over the years, and which he’s made into 311’s ideological centerpiece.

But that discipline doesn’t stop these two from playing around. Clanton runs a dragnet through the post-“Loser” stream of mid-’90s alt-rock, gathering together the kinds of choppy breakbeats and disorienting samples that made temporary stars of artists like Primitive Radio Gods, Soul Coughing, Eels, The Verve, Luscious Jackson, Butthole Surfers, and any number of other (unfairly or not) cast-off artists whose combined aesthetic did as much to define the era as any of Seattle’s best. He refashions these discarded ideas into his most accessible—and fun—music to date, turning a questionable pan-pipe chime into a new-age jam for the standout “Crash Pad,” which Hexum happily spangles with a lip-smacking auto-wah guitar line. It’s as if Enigma rewrote “Return to Innocence” for a Zac Efron beach caper.

Though he’s made it clear that his partner did the lion’s share of the work here, Hexum is clearly the star, albeit an unlikely one. While the last few years have seen artists like Korn, Sublime, and the Dave Matthews Band reassessed and accepted as key influences on a younger generation of artists, Hexum and 311 are harder to pin down. The SoCal-via-Omaha quintet have never quite fit into any milieu: They were too happy for the alt-rock boom, too sincere for third-wave ska, and they’re just a little too smart for the reggae-rock kooks—from Dirty Heads to Pepper to Magic!—getting barreled in their wake. Appropriately for a band so closely associated with being on vacation, they come across as perpetual tourists to the casual listener, which makes them difficult to take seriously. Point to their graceful melodies, pop instincts, dubby experiments, and bodacious grooves all you want, you’ll still sound like someone insisting you gotta try the coconut shrimp at Sandals Montego Bay.

It’s worth wondering, then, whether Hexum is an unwitting cog in a complex machine built to exploit the subversive joy of liking something you’re not supposed to; “maybe I represent it a little bit harder because I like to get a rise out of people,” Clanton admits in that same interview. Hexum had never even heard of vaporwave until meeting Clanton backstage a couple of years ago, and part of the pleasure of this album does come from the very specific frisson of hearing a somewhat-forgotten icon of the ’90s sing over beats seemingly made from old 7-Up commercials and X-Games soundtracks.

But Hexum is an eager and present collaborator, and he neatly sidesteps his own novelty by indulging in nostalgia of his own. He sings gamely about a past spent sleeping on the floor of a run-down Hollywood apartment and driving a “rattling Corolla rusted out behind the tires” on “Out of the Blue,” and fizzes about the rush of young love on “Under Your Window” over a giddy little beat that’s part “Steal My Sunshine” and part “Baby Baby.” He’s spent the last 30 years vocally sparring with 311’s S.A. Martinez, and he treats Clanton’s beats the same way, ducking around the gaps in the production and finding the swing where it doesn’t seem like it should exist. Even when Clanton takes him through a series of nightlife scenes in “Driving in My Car,” he shows up ready to roll, skanking through with a guitar line that manages to sound like Lynval Golding, Nile Rodgers, and King Krule as the context shifts.

Precisely because these two sound so at ease as a team, the album fails when they begin to drift back to their innate tendencies. Both penultimate track “Time of Wandering” and closer “Shouldnta Done That” feature Hexum as balladeer, as if he couldn’t quite make it to the end of the album without reverting to statement mode; with its vocal stacks and starswept melody, the former comes off like Fleet Foxes covering The Greatest Showman over a 2 Skinnee J’s beat, while Clanton turns in a half-baked Slide retread for the latter. It’s disappointing to hear them both return to type, particularly given how contagious their joy is when they’re splashing around in the shallows together. Hexum has spoken compellingly about the pains of being pegged as a vapid songwriter on the basis of being positive and upbeat, but when you’re making an album as immediate and easy to digest as this, you’ve got to trust your instincts.

Despite their chemistry, it’s not immediately clear what these two artists have in common. But 311’s particular brand of radio reggae has always been tinted by Hexum’s love of the Smiths and the Cure—on their island, the sun is usually setting. As he and Clanton sing together in “Aurora Summer,” he wants you to know just how he feels this summer, because if he can say it clearly, then maybe, for just a second, he can keep the encroaching darkness at bay a little while longer. This is how he’s always operated in 311, and this unspoken self-awareness is what makes this project vibrate with fragile happiness when it’s at its best.

Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.

Back to home