Monday, September 14, 2009

Ursa Major - Third Eye Blind

Ursa Major

Third Eye Blind
Mega Collider Records.

SCQ Rating: 86%

Six years is an eternity for a pop band. It’s longer than most bands’ hiatuses, however indefinite, and longer than any artist has taken to write their masterpiece. Upon the release of Red Star EP last fall, I detailed how frustrating a six-year wait can be for a fan but personal complaints aside, this lengthy absence was downright dangerous for the band. If there was ever a serendipitous marker in their career screaming “get your shit together”, it should’ve exploded like a cherry bomb under Stephan Jenkins’ pillow following the commercial disappointment of Out of the Vein. Forget that it remains their best album; Elektra was folding in 2003 and 3eb, stuck with a dying label’s marketing prowess (only ‘Blinded’, the unlikely first single, received video treatment), were left to fend for themselves. Derided by many journalists as a 90s band, that should’ve been the end of Third Eye Blind, capped predictably by their greatest hits package in 2006. So it’s worth looking back over six largely unproductive years in the life of a time-capsule band when the long-delayed, nearly fictitious Ursa Major arrived in stores last month and landed on the Billboard’s Top Three. If you listen closely, you'll hear the clatter of journalists spinning through old rolodexes for 3eb's press agent.

Of course, I’d forego the crude history lesson and fist-pumping had Ursa Major become the letdown everyone was expecting. Yet this long-awaited fourth album not only avenges the tragic mismanagement of Out of the Vein commercially, it reinstates Third Eye Blind in all its rocking, quirky, guilty-pleasured glory. ‘Summer Town’ evokes everything you first loved about Third Eye Blind, from its catchy, San Fran-soaked chorus to Jenkins’ hopeless love for rapping, while ‘Can You Take Me’ reclaims the lost art of legitimizing power-pop with, you know, quality songwriting. As surely as Ursa Major contributes several new hit singles to their catalog (the unforgettable drum-fills of ‘Don’t Believe a Word’, future hit ‘Bonfire’), Jenkins and Co. also bare gifts for the dedicated fans who recall ‘Motorcycle Driveby’ or ‘The Red Summer Sun’ as their classics. ‘Dao of St. Paul’ captures all the intimacy and unsung details of Jenkins’ traumatic lovelife, sewn tightly with the same lyrical strengths that made ‘Good Man’ or ‘The Background’ so irresistible. And like those songs, the most pressing catalyst for Jenkins’ turmoil goes unnamed here… an omission that inevitably points to him. Still, ‘Dao of St. Paul’ and ‘Monotov’s Private Opera’ together showcase a growth for the songwriter, whereby regrets and outrages presented on past albums are here given a silver lining of self-understanding, even redemption, on well-assembled chorals which close both songs.

Gushing aside, Ursa Major isn’t perfect; in fact, it’s the band’s first record that feels a tad disjointed, as between every handful of superb, 3eb tracks, there’s a nagging track destined to disrupt momentum. Prime example ‘One in Ten’ somehow evades the cutting-room floor with a well-intentioned but hopelessly lazy ode to a love guttered by lesbianism. At least ‘One in Ten’s greatest defense is its brevity, whereas ‘About To Break’ is just plodding, boasting no obvious strengths or weaknesses. These are minor imperfections unlikely to warrant the skip button but associative to the record’s patchy groove, even when Ursa Major, by percentage, has the most balladry of any 3eb record.

When, two years ago, Jenkins stated that Ursa Major - at that point, still titled The Hideous Strength - would be a very political record, I couldn’t help but cringe. Such an idea was topical during George Bush’s first run and exploitive during his inexplicable second term, so when ‘Non-Dairy Creamer’ arrived - complete with Jenkins’ ironic jab on Bush’s “mission accomplished” moment - after Obama had won the presidency, I had thoughts of throwing in my 3eb towel. Politics move too quickly for someone carrying six years of writer’s block, and mercifully, this full-length rejects the leftist’s pop-culture handbook with Jenkins’ progressive but non-preachy commentary. It’s one of many aspects to this collection I didn’t expect to enjoy, yet another that cements Ursa Major as an uncompromising comeback.


matt said...

Blinded did have a video, just not a very good one.

SCQ said...

Wow Matt, you're right! I've seen that video but I assumed it must be a fan-made one...
Thanks for the correction!