There’s no getting around that Third Eye Blind is pure late nineties alt-rock, a genre that often gets pegged with titles like “flash-in-the-pan,” “arena,” or “generic,” and rightfully so. How many bands who rose during this period are still around? And by around, I mean making records, not playing the Wisconsin State Fair (sorry, Eve 6). But all musical stereotyping aside, Third Eye Blind always managed to stand apart from their peers; they were a little more diverse than Matchbox 20, a little smarter than Fuel, a little weightier than Tonic. After revisiting their discography (a whopping three albums) for the first time in years, it’s apparent that Third Eye Blind is one guilty pleasure that has stood the test of time.
Okay, first thing’s first. Let’s get our usual gripes with the band out of the way. Yes, frontman Stephan Jenkins’ laid back San Francisco drawl and slight lisp can get a tad grating, especially when he’s trying to be serious. Sure, their more profound lyrics are often interrupted with awkward attempts at being sexy (“I put it in with my animal ways…”) and cornball phrasing (Jenkins’ over-usage of the word “ya’ll” is laughable). But underneath the occasional white boy goofiness is a band that deserves credit for tackling darker subject matter while still being insanely catchy.
The biggest example of this is, of course, is their self-titled 1997 debut that managed to crank out-count ‘em-six hits. Nearly half of the album was widely circulated on mainstream rock radio, thanks to their breakout track, “Semi-Charmed Life”. Love it or hate it, people were so ensnared in the sticky bubblegum of its “doo-doo-doo-doo” chorus that they failed to realize the song was about the crystal meth scene in San Francisco. Does anyone else remember it being played in the trailer for The Tigger Movie?
Another thing that set the album apart from Yourself Or Someone Like You or any other alt rock debut of the time was the guitar work of Kevin Cadogan. A student of the legendary Joe Satriani, Cadogan let his guitar bend, tweak, sooth, and chirp, riding the Richter scale between bursts of crunchy power pop (“The Burning Man”), ghostly reverberation (“Narcolepsy”), and straight up soloing (“Graduate”). And like any staple radio rock band, Third Eye Blind could nail the acoustic ballad, only with an explosion of celebratory bombast at the end. Closer “God of Wine” starts off as introspective moper, showcasing only Jenkins’ hushed whisper and acoustic guitar as he laments people who party too much, before expanding its sound and subject matter. Once the rest of the band kicks in, the song becomes a cosmic pastiche, laden with images of crumbling bedrooms and Bacchus. Everything comes crashing down in an alcoholic apocalypse.
The band’s second album, Blue, would continue Jenkins’ obsession with the darker side of space. From its glowing, planetary album cover to its tripped out loop effects, “Blue” expanded Third Eye Blind’s sound like a black hole, even if it wasn’t as immediately catchy as its predecessor. However, the hooks were (and still are) there. “Never Let You Go” may have unashamedly aped The Cars, but it remains quite possibly the catchiest thing the band has ever written. Most of the other tracks (with the exception of terse pop punk opener “Anything”) are near mini opuses, genre-shifting tunes that are a bit harder to sift through, but rewarding for the patient listener. Songs like “Wounded” and “Deep Inside Of You” begin as ethereal sonar broadcasts before ascending to straightforward radio rock. It may be big and loud, but it has a bit of sophistication to it from being buried under a fractured soundscape. This aesthetic is stretched even further on “Camouflage”, a surreal series of Jenkins scatting, wooping, and yipping against an echoing backdrop of tunnel guitar. Granted, half of the time he sounds like Jar-Jar Binks, but the band deserves credit for experimenting in ways that none of their peers were doing at the time. Blue went on to sell over two million copies, only a third of Third Eye Blind, but by no means a failure. However, these dwindling numbers would continue with the band’s final release Out Of The Vein.
Released in 2003, Out Of The Vein came out at a time when many people had forgotten about the band. A four year gap is a long waiting period for an arena rock outfit, and although sales were predictably meager, Out Of The Vein has aged surprisingly well. Lyrically, it’s the band’s most consistent and successful record (with the exception of the Fred Durst-produced “Misfits”) largely due to the fact that the content revolves around Jenkins’ failed relationship with Charlize Theron. Tracks like “Faster” and “Blinded” reflect his guilty yearning for her on an intimate scope, nailing the stalker feeling one gets following a nasty breakup. “Blinded” is the band’s “Every Breath You Take”, detailing voyeuristic heartache without sounding creepy.
Out Of The Vein’s ultimate weakness is the departure of Cadogan, who left the band in the midst of touring for Blue. The album’s guitar work doesn’t flex as much, often settling for plodding power chords instead of cosmic soloing and atmosphere. Still, Out Of The Vein remains a solid listen, showcasing a band who had managed to settle down quite nicely.
According to Jenkins, the band’s next album, Ursa Major, is set for an early 2009 release. It’s hard to say how successful it will be, especially after taking a six year break. Even more worrisome are Jenkins’ repeated promises that the album will be “more political.” Anyone unfortunate enough to watch his horribly dumbed down Obama support speeches on You Tube will want to run for the hills. I love Obama as much as the next guy, but Jenkins should stick to what he knows best: slightly twisted lyrics backed by cavernous, yet sugary guitars. So please, Stephan, rehire Cadogan and take us back to 1997. These days, it’s the most relevant thing an arena rock band can do.