The trouble with guitar pop bands in the '90s basically boils down to this: Too many of today's young musicians grew up worshipping R.E.M. -- and for the wrong reasons. Many aspire to the beta-male earnestness that informs both R.E.M.'s jangly songs and their anti-rock star image. But few have matched the group's ability to use melody, rhythm, and dynamics in smart and exciting ways.
For this reason, Third Eye Blind's self-titled 1997 debut album was a breath of fresh air. Where their peers had good intentions, these guys had vitality and chops. True, there was nothing groundbreaking about the San Francisco-based band's taut, driving music, which actually owed a greater debt to alpha-male influences like Jane's Addiction and U2 than it did to the boys from Athens, Ga. But at least Third Eye Blind borrowed cleverly and inventively, and with unapologetic bravado.
On their sophomore effort, Blue, Third Eye Blind retain those virtues and move a bit further toward establishing their own identity. The first single, ''Anything,'' is a two-minute post-punk workout that only hints at the group's growing sophistication. Kevin Cadogan's lyrical guitar work is particularly impressive, whether he's serving up a big, juicy solo on ''An Ode to Maybe'' (too bad about the title) or lending color and nuance to the chiming ''Camouflage'' -- a fine showcase for Brad Hargreaves' crisp, muscular drumming.
Though singer-principal songwriter Stephan Jenkins isn't as patently virtuosic, his distinctly animated, unaffected vocals -- which, like his lyrics, offer an appealing mix of playfulness and yearning -- ultimately do more to give Third Eye Blind a singular sound. None of his new songs quite jump up and grab you by the throat the way the band's breakthrough single, ''Semi-Charmed Life,'' did. (The crackling, power-pop-inspired ''Never Let You Go'' comes closest.) But he and his band mates imbue ''Blue'' with the unforced energy and crafty musicality that make pop music sound good -- as opposed to just sounding good for you.