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Third Eye gets its share

A band first heard in the late '90s suddenly is hot again. Perhaps

August 29, 2009|August Brown

Most artists with an inkling that their new album might top the charts probably lie awake the night before its release like a kid expecting an air rifle on Christmas morning. But Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins didn't lose any sleep.

"We just got back from touring Indonesia, and last week we played the Fox in Oakland, which is kind of our hometown. And we played the new album and had a huge party afterward," Jenkins said. "I fell asleep and woke up to someone from our label calling me to say, 'I can't believe you're sleeping through a No. 1 record!' "

"Ursa Major," the pop-rock band's newest album of effervescent choruses and vinegary machine-gun lyricism was released Aug. 18, topped the iTunes album chart last week and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart this week. As of Tuesday, it had sold 49,215 copies.

But Third Eye Blind's recent success raises a certain question -- what's the band doing there at all? "Ursa" is its first album in six years, out on the band's own label and with no trendsetting wind in its sails.

A glimpse into the dollar bins of late '90s guitar pop would probably reveal some Third Eye Blind. Jenkins' melodicism disguised some needling, often bleak lyrics, but singles "Semi-Charmed Life" and "Jumper" sounded practically Clintonian in their hooky, centrist optimism. There was no overarching story to Third Eye Blind: The band came to popularity at that odd time between grunge's ascendancy and the Internet's decimation of pop radio monoculture.

Few critics will look back on the mid- to late '90s as a stellar age in rock music, and to a lot of people, Third Eye Blind typified a time when everyone was waiting to see what would come next. The band's Billboard singles chart success peaked with its multi-platinum self-titled debut. After the followup, "Blue," its cachet and sales began to drop off, and the band was dropped from Elektra in the great early-aughts label shuffle.

Aside from some lineup changes, the band remains much the same aesthetically as when it left off in 2003. Yet something apparently has shifted in its audience, leading to a rediscovery. It's not the unearthing of a then-obscure act like the Pixies, or a sort of contrarian wink-nudge like the late Hall & Oates comeback. It's a rediscovery of a once very famous, then swiftly neglected rock band attached to no narrative or scene -- hundreds and hundreds of which litter the graveyard of popular music.

So who is returning to them today, and how?

"It's college kids sharing our songs across campus networks on their campuses," Jenkins said. "Our agent at CAA looked at this, and found that we're one of the most requested bands to play shows on campuses."

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Pop nostalgia

It's not just undergrads, apparently; according to a band spokesperson, "Ursa Major" first leaked last week after a group of hackers illicitly obtained the album. What's interesting in that former demographic, though, is that late teenagers and early twentysomethings were probably listening to pop radio when Third Eye Blind was famous the first time. If you're 25 now, Third Eye Blind was still very much a staple on radio when you were in your tweens.

This is a different dynamic than dusting off Dad's Kinks albums and discovering Ray Davies' wit, or finding out that the orchestral midpoint in the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" is actually really freaky. In the typical trajectory of taste, you expand outward and listen wider and to more difficult material. This looks like nostalgia for the mainstream pop hits of your early teens when you're only a few years removed from them.

You could chalk it up to the virtuosic navel-gazing of the Facebook generation, whose self-regard for its passing cultural experiences bests even that of the baby boomers. Or maybe it's some latent desire for straightforward rock music in such an artistically fractured and celebrity-centric time in pop.

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More serious side

But then again, maybe it isn't. As Mikael Wood noted in his Times review, "Ursa Major" has some interesting things going for it. Jenkins' unusual spitfire delivery packs an awful lot of ideas into one verse, and he always leavens it with an enormous chorus that shares a lot with the Who and R.E.M. And though Jenkins once wrote a song with the chorus "Doot doot doot, doot duh doot doo," his lyrics reward those who parse them with bitter and often black-humored musings on addiction, romantic foibles and human depravity.

In conversation, he speaks eloquently about the different sociopolitical ramifications of terrorism in Indonesia as opposed to America. Bands such as Panic! at the Disco have expressed unlikely yet unself-conscious admiration for Jenkins' songcraft. Was Third Eye Blind more durable than we thought?

"I feel like we've had our identity returned to us," Jenkins said. "We've always been subversive, and early on we got lumped in with this group of artists that we had nothing to do with. It wasn't an image of us that we recognized. All that was left after that went away was the music. The audiences now are all 15- to 25-year-olds, and us in our 30s are the dowagers."

As the band warms up for its "Ursa" duties, Jenkins is grateful that what could have been a footnote in the story arc of pop has turned into a sturdy, resurgent career. It seems odd to say this about a multi-platinum act, but you might even call them an underground sensation. That's a testament to the band's resilience, but it's also proof of how many different undergrounds there are in music today.

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august.brown@latimes.com

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