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“On Third Eye Blind’s ‘Darkness’ and Tenuously Theorizing That Bands Have Default ‘Grooves’”

I’m really not sure why but for some reason I seem to have this strange fixation on tempo when I think about Third Eye Blind’s music. For anyone unfamiliar, Third Eye Blind is an alternative rock band that formed in the mid-’90s in San Francisco and hit it big with their 1997 eponymous debut album and the smash hit “Semi-Charmed Life.” The elephant in the room, then, and one of the most tragic stories in the entire history of rock music, is the expulsion of Kevin Cadogan, the band’s founding guitarist, from the group in 2000. In my opinion, in the wake of his departure, Third Eye Blind has not written one single song of any true vitality, let alone a whole album, which their first two efforts, Third Eye Blind and Blue (1999), definitely are.

And a lot of people don’t know this but Blue is pretty much every bit as good as the debut. There’s even a chance that it’s better. But there was this epidemic bent against the big and grandiose in ’90s rock, which of course doesn’t make sense seeing as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and even Radiohead all had proclivities for playing to stadiums and making big, dramatic statements in their music. A particularly gruesome incident I remember is when Third Eye Blind performed “Never Let You Go” and certain family members of mine at this Thanksgiving celebration we were having just really lashing into them, not really making any specific plaints but rather just treating them like they were dirt and doing so in a relatively vague, abstract and aimless sort of way, like a blunt force amounting to insecurity or even homophobia. And then this is kind of an unrelated note but I think it was at this same gathering that one of my uncles buffoonishly chastised my claim that Radiohead was a “legendary” band. Well, I guess we can put the kibosh on that one.

But for this reason and a lot of other reasons as well, songs like “Darkness,” track 11 [1] on Blue, Third Eye Blind’s second album, seem to get buried amongst the rubble. And it’s a good enough song that there’s not reason that it shouldn’t be heard by everybody, everywhere. It opens with a twangy, gorgeous and classic guitar riff from the inimitable Kevin Cadogan, which is how a lot of the band’s songs began back in their salad days. Stephan Jenkins’ vocals then come in soft and easy, cajoling the listener and comfortable in their own skin. Also, the lyrics have a certain quirk to them, toggling almost schizophrenically between foolish narrative and zoomed-in relationship earnestness. Without question, Third Eye Blind, when they were functioning and their keenest level issued an illustrious sense of the psychedelic, in their music, this song being no exception.

Anyway, foreshadowed by the title of this post, I suppose, would be the formulation of a claim that contained within this song lies something resembling Third Eye Blind’s “default groove.” What this means, exactly, would be that, basically, all of their best songs saunter along around this tempo and meter, an easy, andante 80 bpm or so. “How’s it Going to Be?” would be another example of a Third Eye Blind song taking about this gait and you might not believe me but I think you could make a case that that song’s even better than “Semi-Charmed Life.” It’s just got such a vibe about it — there’s a rich, pungent element of melancholy and inherent loss to that song, its lyrics and its overall energy. Implicit within my overall argument here, then, is that “Darkness” is the best Third Eye Blind song, a claim I neither mean to completely affirm nor absolutely lacerate, entirely. “God of Wine” and “Wounded,” two songs from their first two albums, respectively, would only add to this claim of 3EB’s best work taking this andante meter.

Now, in order to prove that Third Eye Blind has a “default groove,” it will be necessary to prove that having a “default groove” is a ubiquitous condition amongst classic rock bands, and that other bands have them as well. The closest relevant parallel to Third Eye Blind would probably be Everclear, a mainstream, late-’90s cohort of Third Eye Blind, but one built more on grunge than psychedelic rock. I would argue that with Everclear it’s the amped up, punky numbers like “Heroin Girl” and “Her Brand New Skin” from Sparkle and Fade (1995) and “Amphetamine” and “Normal Like You” from So Much for the Afterglow (1997) that represent their “default,” if you will — like what they naturally do when they first start picking up their instruments in the studio and jamming. The midtempo pop of “Summerland”; “I Will Buy You a New Life” and “Why I Don’t Believe in God,” then, would be a “foray,” or a departure from the normal mode of operation, with Third Eye Blind’s “foray” then, theoretically, lying in the caffeinated punk rock of “Semi-Charmed Life”; “London”; “Anything”; etc. Now, of course, implying that the loud, punky numbers are the best Everclear songs could be a bit hazardous — such a reasoning would probably place “Her Brand New Skin” at the top. Actually, the Everclear concert I saw at the Aragon Ballroom in the ’90s was the loudest show I’ve ever been to, so maybe there is something to my claim. Still, it’s certainly a hard thing to prove.

Can I at least make a convincing rhetoric that “Darkness” is the best Third Eye Blind song? Well, let’s see. On top of all of its flairs I’ve already mentioned, there’s the glorious way the song has of exploding into a loud, dominant chorus, belied by its slow pace and hence initiating a fine element of tension and release. Kevin Cadogan’s opening riff is an intricate, arpeggio-laden masterpiece, and what’s more, he installs those robust, perfectly timed frill riffs at the end of every second bar in the chorus, like after Jenkins sings “darkens around me” and “all surround me”. It’s these little signs of attention to detail that, in this curmudgeon’s opinion, make ’90s music a cut above the rest of the field. The Verve and Oasis also frequently made practice of filling those empty space with nice guitar riffing, making their songs that much fuller and more gratifying, in the process.

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[1] Now it’s with a clenched fist that I say this because my original CD copy of Blue featured a shortened, non-instrumental version of “Slow Motion,” which was basically just a repetition of the chorus with that skeletal chord progression and riffing insulating it, at track 11, and “Darkness” was a stalwart, inspired successor at track 12.