Channeling Galileo - Stephan Jenkins, the wordsmith of Third Eye Blind and UC - Berkeley valedictorian with a B.A. in English.
by Thomas Matich
Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut is a ‘90’s pop gem, a strong cocktail of the then labeled “post-grunge” songwriting swirling with lush, deep flavors that deliver a bittersweet aftertaste. Frontman Stephen Jenkins penned potent radio hits about the sobering of crumbling relationships with “How’s It Gonna Be” or “Semi-Charmed Life,” a tale about crystal meth that is as infectious as the drug itself with its “Do Do Do Do” hook that’s still a guaranteed sing-a-long. The band has enjoyed cult status among ‘80’s babies and has seen their catalog outlast late ‘90s alt-rock peers such as Fastball, Marcy Playground and Matchbox 20 (Despite how inescapable Rob Thomas is).
But just how ‘90s is Stephen Jenkins? On The Beverly Hills 90210 Soundtrack released in 1992 during the height of the drama’s popularity, there’s a song called “Just Wanna Be Your Friend” by Puck & Natty ⎯ Jenkins' old hip-hop group. The feel good jam features Jenkins rapping cutesy cheesy come-ons: “We could ride around on my motorcycle / It's blue, it's cool. / I'll help you pick out the tattoos that you wear on your wrist / Or we can drink cappuccinos,” as the beat blends a sample of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two” with a summery strum that Sugar Ray must’ve heard at some point. And now that 90210 is back on the air and Melrose Place is being resurrected this fall, it’s the perfect time for a new TEB record.
This writer praising TEB’s debut and awarding them with cult status might bewilder some readers. But, something interesting happened last year when TEB released the digital single “Non-Dairy Creamer,” with stems of the track made available for fans to remix. The song is equal parts satirical social commentary and self-important spoof, with the band perhaps mocking their own often heavy lyrics as Jenkins rambles one-liners that belong on Weekend Update rather than a Dylan album: “My punk band's called Operation Iraqi Freedom… And two gay guys got married / And brought the family to its knees / How did they blow us to smithereens /Just a couple of queens… It's two young gay... REPUBLICANSSSS.”
A post on the popular music blog Stereogum labeled “Non-Dairy Creamer” a contender for the worst song of 2008, poking fun at Jenkins’ lyrics (“They call it KFC / 'Cause it's not really chicken”) and his quoting of the tired M.I.A. song “Paper Planes.” A fiery debate ensued in the comments section, with indie elitists trashing TEB as manufactured commercial rock while diehard fans defended Jenkins’ genius as an underrated songwriter for a solid ‘90s band that puts on a killer live show. Jenkins eventually responded, hopefully putting the song in proper perspective:
In regards to "Non-Dairy Creamer," indeed humor is the intent, both musically and lyrically. I've felt provoked and poisoned by our politics and culture in the last few years. I wanted to amplify that provocation with some irony and take a knock at some of these fear-based phrases like "threat level orange."
People bought more compact discs in ’97 when TEB debuted. They sold six million copies of their first record. There was no iPod touch yet. Times were different. Bill Clinton was president. The economy was booming and American culture reflected families that had hit prosperity. The Twin Towers stood strong and terrorism was just something Tom Clancy wrote about.
Okay, maybe things weren’t that simple back then. But, they were a hell of a lot better…
In the past decade, TEB have been far from prolific, releasing only two albums that failed to have the same impact as their debut. Their sophomore set, Blue, featured a hit single in “Never Let You Go,” while their third album, Out of Vein, saw them swinging hard but striking out. In 2004, the band was released from Warner Music and remained relatively quite until they started touring on the back of their debut’s ten year anniversary. It was good timing as new fans discovered the record and the ‘80s rehash nostalgia began to wane making way for the next decade to make a comeback. The band inked a new deal with Sony and released the Red Star EP last November to gain momentum for their upcoming fourth album, Ursa Major, released this past August.
“Time tick tick ticks after me / My mp3 is out of juice,” Jenkins chirps on “Sharp Knife,” as strings tremble and drums roll with the calm of waves crashing into the shore at night. The song launches into an arena rock ready chorus with echoes and shredding riffs that recall the fiery gusto of “Narcolepsy.” Ursa Major could’ve been the name of Jenkins’ sailboat if not the title of the new TEB record. “Bonfire,” is perhaps the album’s highlight as the gypsy finger plucking fans the flames of the most vibrant sparks as Jenkins sings of lightning coming and going and hearts burning on and on.
In recent interviews and blog posts Jenkins speaks of spending time on the beach strumming his guitar with friends gathered around the bonfire, watching dolphins swim in the ocean and the astrological and astronomical influences that Ursa Major has (the album’s title is taken from the constellation of stars that include the Big Dipper). This is a man very in touch with nature in a time of great change in the political and economical climate.
Jenkins campaigned for Obama during the election and the new album’s opener, “Can You Take Me,” with his proclamation of “So can you take me / Into days I never knew? / Let's start a riot, me and you / 'Cause a riot's overdue” could be a Presidential theme song. The structure is reminiscent of U2’s “Vertigo,” with diesel fueled riffs and crackling drums that could be synchronized with fireworks. It’s the proper kick-ass way for a rock band that hasn’t released an album in 6 years to start things off. And I’m sure Bono would pop a boner over Jenkins’ blunt rhapsody to lead a revolution “Don't back down, don't compromise / Don't close your eyes / Here it is do or die.”
The track is as much about Obama making it to the White House, Hoping for Change and the fall of the Bush Administration after 8 years of living hell as it is about a band being reawakened with a bright spark at the end of a decade they spent in a creative coma. And as TEB stares down the end of the aughts on “Don’t Believe A Word,” a rumbling rally cry that cultivates the feelings many Americans felt during the last eight years as Jenkins semi-raps about crooks and liars, there’s a line that resonates in wake of the banker bailouts and health care crisis: “Hope we don't get fooled again!”
TEB’s slow burning jams like “I Want You,” from TEB’s debut are given a makeover on new cuts “One In Ten,” and “Want Can’t You Be,” the latter a lighthearted lullaby about unsatisfied lovers wishing their partners were more like JD Salinger or “my Waterpik shower massager / A sweet reliable machine.” Underneath the political messages and beefed-up ‘90s soundscapes, Jenkins still sings mostly about love. It’s his passion that made TEB’s debut a eternal flame and what makes Ursa Major a romantic walk on the beach rekindling those emotions.
Eat your heart out, 90210. //DC//