It’s so easy to pick on Third Eye Blind. They’re not “hip” or “current.” They come from that batch of late ’90s FM rock, like Matchbox Twenty and Vertical Horizon. Their lead singer, Stephan Jenkins, provides unintentional humor whilst giving political speeches. So why is it that the band still has a strong following, a following that causes an uproar over any criticism laid upon them? And more importantly, why am I enjoying the band’s first album in six years, Ursa Major?
Ah, questions. Who needs them?
The fact is, Ursa Major is a good record. It isn’t the band’s best by a long stretch, and it won’t set the bar for any albums to follow. It’s simply a good time, and sometimes that’s all you need as the summer comes to a close. For anyone in fear that this might be a “political” record, it isn’t. Oh, there are some heavy-handed moments here and there, but nothing that matches the clumsiness of “Non-Dairy Creamer”. And for that we should be grateful.
Opener “Can You Take Me” provides foot-stomping verses over loud-yet-melodic guitars. Lead guitarist Tony Fredianelli has more of an identity here when the electric guitar features prominently, as opposed to 2003’s confused Out of the Vein. Along with drummer Brad Hargreaves (though sans original bassist, Arion Salazar), the band welcomes back its fans with a song that shows the group hasn’t lost their flair for writing a big, pop rock song.
Third Eye Blind continues their trend of “Hey, track 2 sounds like a song by The Who” with “Don’t Believe a Word”. The guitar lead-in sounds as much like “Baba O’Riley” as the previous album’s “Blinded” sounded like “Pinball Wizard”. It does make sense as a first single, however; it’s catchy-as-hell, but has a couplet that is so horrendous, you will cringe every time you hear it: “Rap stars brag about shooting each other/Whatever happened to, “Brother, brother”?”.
What makes this line worse is how passionate and sincere Jenkins sounds while singing it. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the rest of the song, but it sticks with you. Fortunately, “Bonfire” provides a chilled-out track after the big production numbers preceding it. “Sharp Knife” has great percussion throughout that erupts into sing-a-long choruses the band has had perfected for over a decade now. If people still took the release of a single seriously, this track would garner popular consideration.
As a whole, Ursa Major is somewhat stripped down from the band’s previous releases. The strongest songs of the record are actually the more reserved, if a Jenkins-produced song in the 21st century can be reserved. As the surprises keep coming, a political (!) song in the form of “About to Break” may be the best tune on the album. The breakdown, with Jenkins singing under a choir shouting, “Break like a fever,” makes the track worthy of inclusion alongside hits off the band’s debut record or even 1999’s Blue. Hargreaves, yet again, is great behind the drum kit.
Before getting too excited, there are some serious mistakes Jenkins and co make on Ursa Major. “One in Ten” doesn’t work as a track placed in the middle of the record. As a secret track, it might work, but not between the two best songs on the album (“Sharp Knife” and “About to Break”). Its sequencing immediately ices the album’s pacing, but that’s hardly the only fault here.
The next mistake arrives in “Summertown”. In the past, Jenkins has rapped on many songs, and it used to be quirky and fun (see: “Never Let You Go”). Even on later Ursa track “Water Landing”, the rap works as a bridge to a chorus, but with “Summertown”, the lame free-form rapping goes on for nearly two minutes, and it’s just a tad embarassing.
Veering back to the more positive aspects of the record, we remember Jenkins asking “How’s It Going to Be” back in 1997 as he asks “Why Can’t You Be” in 2009. A live version of this song appeared on the band’s Red Star EP, and has now reached a solid studio conclusion (avoid the Kimya Dawson duet version of this track, however, at all costs). It really comes to life on the album, showcasing Jenkins’ best vocals on this effort, especially in the song’s climax.
The final two songs of Ursa Major, “Dao of St. Paul” and “Monotov’s Private Opera” (the teasing, “Carnival Barker”, notwithstanding), are also acoustic-driven, contrasting the electric-guitar of the opening tracks. Both feature choirs, which may turn off some with their “big finishes”, but they just seem to work here. And that sums up the record as a whole: It just works.
It isn’t definite that we will see the promised Ursa Minor later this year, featuring songs not included on Ursa Major. If it doesn’t come, hopefully fans of the band won’t have to wait until later next decade for a new record. In the meantime, if you can see past the occasional cheesy politicizing, the lengthy rap, and one strangely placed track, you should enjoy Third Eye Blind’s Ursa Major for what it is: a fun, end-of-summer pop rock album.