Presented with Comment - Who is Today's best Cult Band?
It is time for our Sunday piece, Presented with Comment, where each week Michael and Nicholas La Torre take a turn engaging in a debate over alt topics of interest and gauging the audience's views on the issues at hand. To do this, the authors will present examples to support their opinions and not only get the audience's view on the two sides presented, but seek feedback from the audience on alternatives as well.
Choosing a Band
When discussing bands with cult followings, you generally have two types: the bands who always seem on the cusp of mainstream popularity, but never make it (sometimes by choice, which is totally ok) and you have the ones who reach mainstream success, but over time...fade out. Their legacies of these bands hinge on what they do next. Certainly, many bands who experience the latter never achieve cult-following status. There are some who figure out how to achieve early success while carving their own path during an ever-changing music scene. While mostly out of the spotlight, these bands enjoy a very successful career and develop a cult-like fanbase. Insert my choice for one of alt musics bands most deserving of their cult-like fanbase: Third Eye Blind (3eb).
Now, similar to Michael's pick (huge fan, btw), many folks know about my choice thanks to their first single becoming one of the most popular songs of the 90s. "Semi-Charmed Life" from the band's 1997 debut album, Third Eye Blind, received instant recognition on mainstream charts and was somewhat representative of the potential most people felt the band had at the time. Earlier in their career, Lead Singer Stephen Jenkins had scoffed at the idea that the band was a pop band (he has since embraced this), the band was competing with the best mainstream had to offer and holding its own. In my opinion, the band enjoyed the perfect climate during which to burst onto the scene. Alternative music was seeing a surge at this time so bands like Third Eye Blind were getting recognition in national media. In case you think you know "Semi-Charmed Life," but aren't sure, I guarantee you do. In fact, click below for a refresher and wait for the inevitable, "ohhhhhh!"
It was the late 1990s. I believe that the popularity of Grunge music had brought rock and roll into the households of many who had never listened before. Alt of the 90s shared some of the equally depressing themes from the Grunge scene, but with upbeat melodies and harmonies, and a west coast hip-hop element. Fans were able to achieve the emotional connection to the music while being uplifted with deceiving pop instrumentals. There was no better example of this than when Third Eye Blind released their self-titled debut album. When "Semi-Charmed Life" came on and Jenkins channeled his inner Lou Reed, we couldn't help but"doot, doot, doot" right along with him and everything felt a little bit happier. People seemed not to notice the uber messed up themes discussed in the song, such as rampant drug use and oral sex. The song resonated with folks and had the necessary catchy lyrics to help achieve mainstream success. With the incredible popularity of the albums singles, other masterpieces from the album such as "Motorcycle Drive By" and "God of Wine" were overshadowed. To me, "God of Wine" is an anthem that hits home for anyone who has suffered with and from addiction.
Here is a lyric video for "God of Wine," which shows the incredible depth behind the band's writing, even early in their career:
Over the next few years, 3eb's other tracks, "How's it Going to Be" and "Jumper," kept the band on the charts with their use in major motion pictures and tv shows. While the video below is from a movie that was not released until 2011, part of the charm of the song and the reason for its use here is a reference to its popularity. Pardon the over explanation, but the song was so recognizable that literally everyone should know it, which would be perfect for starting sing-song rapport with someone on the verge of suicide (which is exactly what the song is about).
I, honestly, do not believe 3eb would have continued to sell out shows night after night (still to this day) had they simply rode that success into the sunset. Despite a changing musical climate, 3eb continued to release albums over the next 21 years. After continued success in 1997 with their second studio album, Blue, the band parted ways with songwriter and guitarist, Kevin Cadogan. Cadogan, who had such impact on the 3eb sound up to this point, was suddenly gone. Personally, I feel this led to a shift in the songwriting, with most of the input obviously coming from Jenkins. The storytelling seemed to be coming from a singular place where listeners would have difficulty discerning song lyrics from actual experiences in Jenkins's own life. To me, this helped with the shift from mainstream success to loyal and dedicated fanbase in 2003 with the release of their third studio album, Out of the Vein. Dedicated fans yearned for more, seeing the songs as detailed looks into the band they had admired so much. Oddly, this happened at a time when 3eb found themselves without a record label despite their original blockbuster record contract, which at the time was one of the largest in history for an unsigned artist. Two singles were released from Out of the Vein, which saw less commercial success than the band was accustomed, but still received great critical acclaim.
"Blinded" - Out of the Vein
As always, 3eb keep their typical pop-alt sound with lyrics that sound as though they are being sang over the wrong melody, but this is the 3eb specialty and they pull it off remarkably. The protagonist in the song is in his ex-partner's bathroom, catching a bit more of a glimpse than was intended, and is reminiscing about the great times of the relationship. The protagonist wishes he could express his feelings about how he still feels, but the societal constraints we place on ourselves keeps him from mustering the bravery to do it. They end up fighting instead, which is the complete opposite of what he wanted. The frustration is palpable while the melody makes us feel an incredible longing to have good things and good people back into our lives. This song is truly a masterpiece that highlights Stephen Jenkins's storytelling abilities. He compares seeing her again as similar to staring into the sun. This takes a seemingly insignificant moment and showcases the power the experience can actually have on the person who felt it.
"Bonfire" - Ursa Major
Third Eye Blind released what I believe is possibly their best album of their career in 2009 with the release of Ursa Major. While many of the songs seem a little more tame than some of their older pop-alt ballads (not really my label), I believe this album showed a maturity to the songwriting process and musical style of the band. The word play throughout the album by Jenkins is incredible, and the music itself seems to guide the listener through the lyrics and story in a way that had not been done to that point. The first single from the album, "Bonfire," begins describing a scene that most people can easily envision. Jenkins even uses astrology to help us fathom the beauty of the love interest in the story. Describing her as Cassiopeia, the constellation of the vain queen in Greek Mythology, who is remembered for her unrivaled beauty and unapologetic demeanor. The protagonist knows he wants to enjoy the early part to his new relationship, but he's overwhelmed. He finds himself getting caught up in her, but realizes there is a deadline to these new feelings.
"Sharp Knife" - Ursa Major
To me, this song is demonstrates everything Third Eye Blind's cult following loves about them. I wanted to include only one song from each album, but leaving off either "Bonfire" or "Sharp Knife" for the other would simply be unfair. There are varying opinions about the meaning of this song, but one rises to the top. The song is an anthem to one's self to cut away the things keeping them from being free. This includes not only external restraints, but internal ones as well. The author wants to rid himself of the insecurities surrounding his life. By taking a stand, he can remove not only the fears from his life, but also those who are holding him back. He wishes it could be so simple as to grab a knife and cut away those in your life who have either wronged you or held you back.
"Back to Zero" - Dopamine
This is one of those songs that you do not just hear, but you feel. Jenkins's lyrics are specific enough that he could actually be describing two different situations, perfectly. Initially, I hear thoughts about finding a way to reset one's self each day and continue through the misery that is sure to come. Upon hearing the song more and more, I believe Jenkins isn't afraid to insinuate that the ultimate way to get "Back to Zero" is to end the emptiness altogether. The protagonist is using what meddling methods they have left for coping, while wishing they had a redo. To restart this life or end it entirely. As if the person is hanging onto every day, not sure if today is the day they will give up. There are two possible solutions for the emptiness, to fill the hole or to reset the clock entirely.
Band Legacy and Fan Reverence
For those who haven't followed 3eb, it may be easy to dismiss Third Eye Blind as this band that reached so much popularity in the early 90s, that by comparison, their commercial appeal now suggests one-hit wonder status. Many, even those who were aware of their impact on music in the 90s, thought the band went away with the exception of some occasional media coverage and political outreach. This couldn't be further from the truth.
The band has always been great about reaching out to fans, which gives the impression (for good reason) that fans have continuous dialogue with the band and the creative process. The fact that we all watched 3eb mature throughout the years creates camaraderie amongst the fans. This element, coupled with intelligent and thought-provoking lyrics, gave many fans a reason to keep coming back. Jenkins continues to poetically speak on behalf of an entire generation from behind the mic and in the media. The band as a whole served as the soundtrack of the generation of those who grew up in the 90s. Those die-hard fans know that despite only retaining one original member, the band continues to sell out venues and receive positive reviews for any of the works they produce. The band has quietly sold more than 12 million albums, with their debut album, Third Eye Blind, eventually reaching platinum six times. They put on a stage show like few others and unlike some bands, do not shun from the songs that got them there, regularly performing their biggest hits and delivering for fans who still embrace their early music. To me, Third Eye Blind has always brought a sense of confidence, an allure to the west coast lifestyle, and a maturity to songwriting that I have been unable to find in other bands. As they continue to carve out a legacy in rock and alternative history, they maintain a loyal and doting audience, ready to soak up every taste of the band's next steps.