The 1990s was a bizarre and fertile renaissance for indie rock bands with major label contracts, with such unlikely acts as Shudder to Think and The Jesus Lizard landing on Epic and Capitol, respectively. A minor, though still notable city in terms of the ’90s alt-rock explosion, San Diego, as well, saw many of its own underground heroes landing major contracts. Rocket From the Crypt is the most famous example, having released three albums with Interscope and in turn landing a handful of hits, though that contract was accompanied by the major label release of Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime, a decidedly non-commercial masterpiece whose funding was provided by savvy negotiation.
Another such SD major label story involves Three Mile Pilot, who, after a few years with Headhunter, released just one album on Geffen Records before calling it quits. Though some consider that swan song, Another Desert, Another Sea, the band’s masterpiece, its visibility was practically zero upon its release. However, after the band’s dissolution, key players Zack Smith and Pall Jenkins moved on to considerably greater success with Pinback and Black Heart Procession, respectively. They each earned a fair share of local airplay (though Pinback certainly had the bigger hits) and even each moved on to the same label – Touch & Go. In hindsight, the parallel careers almost suggested that the artists’ paths would most certainly cross again, yet the extent to which the 3MP name had grown in influence still came as something of a surprise. After initially announcing a pair of reunion shows at local haven The Casbah, both shows sold out quickly, revealing that demand for Three Mile Pilot has risen to a new high.
The Inevitable Past Is the Future Forgotten, the band’s first album in more than 12 years, bears such a chilling and familiar melancholic jangle, it’s almost as if the preceding dozen years had never happened. Jenkins’ husky moan, the elegant interplay of piano and guitar, the dark yet immediately alluring sense of songcraft – all of the qualities that made 3MP such an important name in San Diego music arrive in spades on Inevitable, and what a sweet sound it is.
Smith and Jenkins’ songwriting styles have long centered on melancholy, minor key sounds, and that hasn’t changed much here. While the group never pushes the envelope on intensity or abrasion, there’s nonetheless a sense of heightened urgency on leadoff track “Battle.” An emergency siren wails beneath Jenkins’ croon, as maniacal keyboards escalate beneath crunchy guitar jangle. Meanwhile the interplay between a dark bassline and clean arpeggios on standout “Grey Clouds” makes for one of the album’s most accessible moments. Likewise, the minor key piano hook in “Same Mistake” provides an elegant foil to the distorted guitar harmonies. And gloomy dirge “The Threshold” even recalls the graveyard cabaret of Jenkins’ other band, The Black Heart Procession.
While it’s a shame that Geffen didn’t really know what to do with Three Mile Pilot when they had the opportunity, they never felt like the right fit on the label that housed both Nirvana and Weezer. With some time off and a new source of inspiration, however, Three Mile Pilot have re-emerged as strong as ever, with a set of songs that finds them sounding as fresh as they were a mere 15 years earlier.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.