Why We Fight

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love -- or at least respect -- Third Eye Blind

However, since Blue is a vast improvement over its predecessor, perhaps there's no need for such concern.

Yup, an improvement. And good? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Blue is, for the most part, a fuller realization of what the band aspired -- and failed -- to do on its first album, which was to produce a coherent brand of U2-styled arena rock. Of all the problems with Third Eye Blind, its chief trouble was its utter lack of focus. The CD was, for the most part, the sound of a group that couldn't figure out what it wanted to be, and which had decided, therefore, to be everything -- a bass solo from Arion Salazar here, a fancy guitar effect from Kevin Cadogan there (actually a lot of fancy guitar effects), Brad Hargreaves keeping verybusy at the drum kit, and Stephan Jenkins going everywhere, rapping and screaming and singing falsetto, almost randomly.

The intention was obviously to showcase the band's virtuosity, but that made for some clumsy -- and worse, unmemorable -- songwriting. With the exception of one ballad ("The Background") and one smartly engineered pop single ("Semi-Charmed Life"), the result came off as an advertisement for the Berklee School of Music or some other highfalutin music-tech school. Which means that all of Jenkins' stories about his hard-knock life, as reported by the lyric sheet, got subsumed in the show-offy, outsized musical mess, and sounded passionless.

Third Eye Blind: San Francisco's most improved rock band.
Third Eye Blind: San Francisco's most improved rock band.
The lyrics to "Slow Motion" as they appeared in the band's 1996 press materials.
The lyrics to "Slow Motion" as they appeared in the band's 1996 press materials.



Third Eye Blind
"Never Let You Go"

Third Eye Blind
"The Background"

Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind
"10 Days Late"

Third Eye Blind
"Slow Motion"

"Weird Al" Yankovic
"Polka Power!" [semi-charmed life]

(Files require RealPlayer)


E-mail correspondence
An e-mail exchange between Mark Athitakis and the proprietor of the Third Eye Blind fan site, www.stephanjenkins.com


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That approach, however, is part of the band's appeal to its fans. "It's like the band challenges themselves to make each riff, drum tap, and bass line matchless," says Jennifer Griffin, who from Montgomery, Ala., runs a Third Eye Blind fan site, stephanjenkins.com. "My prediction," she adds, "is that Blue will catapult Third Eye Blind to the top of the Billboard charts as the year's big rock album, silencing critics who harp on 'sophomore slumps.' It's too bad that most critics can't see past the doot-doot-doots and experience the deep symbolism and dark imagery that's found in each and every song, even in that 'I want something else' ditty."

On Blue, the band sounds like it at least knows what it's doing. The opening "Anything" is a brash, brilliant overture of melodic post-punk that -- this is important -- is over in two minutes. The band still believes that shoehorning genres together makes for a good song -- Jenkins will still channel Robert Plant at random moments, and the poppy "The Red Summer Sun" bursts into a Thin Lizzy-like bit of glam rock halfway through -- but this time around the stuff it's pulling out of its trick bag was chosen with some discrimination. Having the Golden Gate Boys Choir sing on the break of "Ten Days Late," a song about pregnancy, is a witty touch, and "Camouflage" punctuates its under- water vocal effects with string figures from locals Carla Kihlstedt and Marika Hughes. Still, wise production choices aren't the hallmark of a great record, and there's a lack of depth here, from the songs the band knocked off to make "Never Let You Go" ("Sweet Jane") and "1000 Julys" ("Back in Black") to Jenkins' lyrics. UC Berkeley English degree or no, they're still just love songs, and he still can't make them meaningful.

Call the album a half-success, then; capable arena rock with enough going on to suggest that maybe, if the band is allowed to develop, it will have something more engaging to express. Whether it will be allowed to develop is something that was recently called into question. Earlier this month, Rollingstone.com reported, Elektra asked the band to remove the song "Slow Motion" from Blue. Elektra chairperson and CEO Sylvia Rhone told the Web site that the song "didn't work in the context of the rest of the album, and it didn't work in the context of the current social climate, and in the overall vision of this band." Management said the bone of contention was the opening verse: "Miss Jones taught me English/ But I think I just shot her son/ 'Cause he owed me money/ With a bullet in the chest you cannot run/ Now he bleeds in a vacant lot." The implication is that a song that mentions teachers and guns is inappropriate for major-label release in a post-Columbine world.

But "Slow Motion" predates Columbine. It was written before the band got famous, and is one of the songs included on its 1995 demo tape. If those opening lines don't "work in the context of the current social climate," consider these from the closing verse, as they're written in the group's 1996 press materials:

And at home
My sister's eating paint chips again
Maybe that's why she's insane
I shut the door to her moaning
And I shoot smack in my veins
Wouldn't you?
See my neighbor beating his wife
Because he hates his life
There's an arc to his fist as he swings
Oh man, what a beautiful thing

Maybe that doesn't work in the current social climate either, and maybe the lines aren't up there with Bob Dylan's lyrics for social verisimilitude. But nobody can deny that they are, at least, vivid. The edginess, the anger, the depth of feeling -- all the stuff Third Eye Blind's lyrics have been credited with having but never quite do -- is right there. On Blue, the only lyrics intact on the delicate piano-driven ballad are those of the chorus: "Slow motion see me let go/ We tend to die young/ Slow motion see me let go/ What a brother knows."

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