For those who had sadly but successfully resigned themselves to a future without Blind Melon, For My Friends is a godsend.
Any 1990s alternative rock aficionado worth their salt will surely be quick to note the cultural importance of Blind Melon's early-90s hit "No Rain". The song holds a place on VH1's 100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders list, an honor that hints at Blind Melon's brief but towering commercial success. However, it unfortunately pays no tribute to the tremendous talent that the remainder of Blind Melon's work contains.
While "No Rain" is a sweet, catchy track perfect for MTV and radio everywhere (it was eventually featured in a 2003 Pepsi commercial), the bulk of Blind Melon's catalog provides a unique listening experience, clearly inspired by classic rock but blended with folk, psychadelia, and modern alternative to create a sound that is incomparable, at times almost sounding like an anachronism in the context of so many of their 90s peers. Their self-titled debut is packed with blistering high-energy jams. After this debut, the band released one more album in 1995, Soup, which strays from the straightforward rock of Blind Melon by incorporating quavering horns and gypsy strings to create a more folk-tinged sound, still completely unique from any other popular music that was being created at the time.
1995 brought tragedy to Melon fans everywhere with lead singer Shannon Hoon's untimely death. In the wake of Hoon's death, Nico, a disc of previously unreleased tracks, was released in 1996, named after Hoon's young daughter. It includes a "Ripped Away" version of "No Rain" that is much more reflective of the Blind Melon sound than its radio-ready counterpart, with its wandering guitar and Hoon's troubled vocals.
After the group's remaining foursome officially disbanded around 1999, Blind Melon was mostly gone from the musical map. Their music survived into the 21st century only in the basements and on the iPods of their most loyal fans. But in 2006, with the addition of Travis Warren on lead vocals, Blind Melon was back in the studio working on new tracks and eventually starting to tour again in 2007. This came as a surprise for most Blind Melon fans who had finally given up hope of a reunited Blind Melon. For My Friends, the product of their recent endeavors together, was released on April 22.
The Blind Melon on For My Friends in 2008 is obviously a different group than they were at the release of Blind Melon is 1992. But long-time fans who have enjoyed all of the group's previous work will find plenty to find joy in on this new disc. Although it is important to begin listening with an open mind – knowing it is absurd to have the same expectations of a group whose members have seen thirteen years of personal growth since the release of their last studio album – it is refreshing to find that For My Friends is exactly what faithful Blind Melons have been needing in their lives for the past decade, whether they knew it or not.
Not nearly as raw as Nico or Soup, the sound of For My Friends most closely echoes the straight-forward rock of their self-titled album. But enough of arbitrary comparisons; the Blind Melon we hear here is a different band than they were twelve years ago upon the release of their last album. 2008 shows us a Blind Melon who has struggled through life's challenges and made it to the surface, alive and well, and wiser than before. For My Friends is the product of a group that is more mature than before, but also sounds rejuvenated with youthfulness, full of the earnestness and vigor that made their previous works so beautiful. Travis Warren, surely unable to ever live up to anyone's standards of Shannon Hoon's passion and creativity, is perhaps the best possible man one could imagine singing with Blind Melon, bringing a rich and passionate edge to the group. Often times it is Warren's voice which elevates the energy of these tracks, pushing them from merely pleasing to downright powerful, like in the brilliant finale of "So High".
For My Friends has a little bit of everything that fans love about Blind Melon, plus enough change that they demand respect as a new band. Tracks like "With the Right Set of Eyes" and "So High" recall the high energy of Blind Melon's best tracks, while "Hypnotize" hints at the more slow-burning cuts that Nico and Soup made fans accustomed to. It is refreshing to find that the bulk of the tracks present something completely new (especially "Down on the Pharmacy" and "Cheetum Street"), as many seem more touched by country than classic rock. But they still possess the sense of rawness that makes them distinctly Blind Melon. "Wishing Well" and "Sometimes" are the most radio-ready of the album's cuts, with the former being released as a single, but even in this more mainstream sound there is a tiny dose of old Blind Melon that still remains, perhaps primarily in Christopher Thorn's loping guitar.
While the sound of the band often returns back to 1992, it is clear that the men of Blind Melon have changed. They were in their early and mid twenties when Blind Melon was released, and are now into their forties. They seem to have taken their energy and turned it outwards, showing us a Blind Melon that comes off as both enlightened and grateful. The opening lyrics of the album look on the past, "I remember we used to sit out back and drink until the morning light / Always bumming smokes and talking trash about the plans that we had." But after this moment of reflection, most of the album turns away from the past to songs about the present, concerning love, friendship, and peace.
I was young when Shannon Hoon died and not fully aware of the greatness of his music until after his death. Understandably, there are fans out there who were affected more directly by his passing, and are perhaps still too heartsick at his absence to listen to a new Blind Melon. But many of us had sadly but successfully resigned ourselves to a future without them, and for us, For My Friends is a godsend. It is pure pleasure to hear Blind Melon once again, sounding as soulful, pure, and bold as when they left.