Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins has a rare knack for crafting memorable songs around atypical pop-rock topics. "Ten Days Late," from the band's 1999 sophomore effort Blue, suggested a woman missing her period, and of course the group's signature hit "Semi-Charmed Life" (from its 1997 eponymous debut) was a sunny summer anthem about a drug addict (and certainly one of the few songs in recorded history to have secretaries and 'tweens alike cheerfully singing "She goes down on me"). That subversive streak is one of Jenkins' strongest talents, and it seems almost inextricably bound to his similar (if much more uneven) gift for melody: his best tunes, like Third Eye Blind's "Jumper," seem to mine bright, tuneful colors from darker material.
That dark-light dichotomy rears its head occasionally on the group's third effort, Out of the Vein. But like the band's trademark guitar hooks, it's largely absent. Like Jenkins' wordy, little-engine-that-could delivery, Vein tries a bit too hard; unlike Jenkins, who somehow makes you root for his straining vocals, the record doesn't succeed -- at least, not fully. Not quite. "Faster" is a jolting opener, all "Aaah-aah" urgency, with Jenkins wrapping the line "I wanna get off one time/ and not apologize" in a fist-pumping frenzy. First single "Blinded" is a similarly effective slice of singalong guitar rock in the best tradition of "Semi-Charmed Life" or Blue's "Never Let You Go." (As a lyric, "Macrame queens in the afternoon" highlights Jenkins' way-overlooked ability to insert vaguely evocative lines with surgical precision, hinting at a short story we're not quite in on.) And "Crystal Baller" (originally the album's title) is a rocking highlight, a plaintive-yet-strident epistle to a lost love powered by a staccato guitar riff and Jenkins' impassioned vocal: it's destined to take its place alongside ubiquitous radio hits like "How's It Going To Be?"
But whether it's due to the loss of guitarist Kevin Cadogan or too much lag time between albums, too much of the rest of Out of the Vein struggles to scratch its way into your memory banks, hobbled by its own melodic shortcomings. Songs like "Danger" and "My Hit and Run" (which rather deftly turns a motorcycle accident into a sad expression of "seize the day" longing) never quite reach escape velocity, although the "bop-bop-bop" refrain of "Can't Get Away" comes close. "Misfits" shows hummable potential, but proves too slow. (And for heartthrob Jenkins, who famously dated Charlize Theron, to attempt to assert solidarity with the "freaks" who "don't fit in" is the height of disingenuousness.) Everything else, from the awkward "Forget Myself" to the lethargic "Good Man," disappears before it's even finished. Third Eye Blind, perhaps the best of the Semisonic-Better Than Ezra strain of guitar-pop bands (and far and away a superior band to the turgid matchbox twenty), is capable of much, much better material than this wobbly, half-and-half affair. Still, the half that's good is quite grabbing, and hints at better things to come.