Review Summary: Matchbox Twenty go South.
Let's start at the very beginning. Shimmering picked guitar thick with reverb, Rob Thomas' unmistakeable vocal enters: "When the slow parade went past / and it felt so good you knew it couldn't last / and all too soon the end is gonna come without a warning / and you have to just go home"
introduction filled me with as much hope as could reasonably be expected. Matt Serletic, generous as ever with his bass mix (The beginning of 'Real World' pleases me to this day. Back when 'listening out' for the bass wasn't something you had to remind yourself to do), subtle strings and harmonies arrive, and the chorus! No. Wait. Pre-chorus! And still building. 'And there's so much more that you could see / if you'd just stick around'
(is that a promise, Rob?). Then, 'ohhhh nooohooooh / there's so much more that you need to work out'.
The chorus hook delivers, I unclench.
While not the entry to their debut album Yourself or Someone Like You
, Matchbox Twenty's (overdue) new album begins with a lot of promise. As a longstanding fan of Rob Thomas I have listened to both Tabitha's Secret and his solo efforts but feel Matchbox Twenty is where the effortlessly cool front man sounds best.
Despite shallow lyrics, 'She's so Mean' is a decent second track, showing off some astute drumming by Paul Doucette. The tightly gated drum mix itself is pretty interesting also (it's like the opposite of Augustana's open, 'roomy' approach). Toms that sound as if they were recorded in another studio, on another day. It's really sweet production and the purposefully saccharin style of the song in general makes up for its flaws.
'Overjoyed', track 3, a slower paced acoustic number, isn't bad but the fourth song comes to an end along with my hopes. 'Put Your Hands Up' is just bad. Featuring a superficial dance aesthetic, it's like the 'vampire movie' of the album, an uncomfortable attempt at something sellable. By now the fresh taste of new Matchbox material is wearing off and I feel like the overall quality of North
is becoming clear.
To cut to the chase, 'How Long' is probably the best example of what this album could have been. With a rather bizarre fairground-synth-Hanson-rock style, a growling bass and some splendid falsetto harmonies, it's a genuine surprise and while not sounding much like the Matchbox Twenty of old it's a very well delivered and dynamic song. But despite including a variety of quirky styles, it's at this point I realise the problem with this record. It's all well and good having a varied mix of song styles on an album; 'How Long' proves it. Yes, it's all well and good, as long as they are good. And, though this song really is, most of the others just aren't. They're distractingly average. Matchbox show all they are capable of here, from the middle eight (Thomas' fast-paced vocal delivering 'like a high school crush / make you wanna run'
and 'tell me that I want you every night of my life'
- a nice nod to their 'college rock' roots), right down to its charmingly impromptu ending. But one or two outstanding songs aren't enough (what was the other outstanding song again?).
Fans have waited an awful long time for this. Maybe it's my fault for having high expectations, living in the past and hoping for something impossible. But as I try to picture this as a band I've never heard before, an album to be rated on its own merits, it just isn't very good. There's only so far a beautiful vocal take you.
Without Thomas' voice, this might as well be a different band from the one that recorded YOSLY. What is intrinsically Matchbox Twenty? What is their sound? The answer is not immediate to me. Without Thomas' voice, what you have is a decent pop rock act that, by what I now believe may be some particularly good fortune, made a sensational start to a very timely rock album in the mid 90's, and then managed two patchy albums over the next 15 years.
Actually, make that 3 patchy albums.
When the highest compliment you can pay is that the band sound best when they don't really sound like themselves, you're reviewing a flawed album. Not because they should remain in 1996 (would it have been so bad?), but because I should be hailing the songwriting. What happened to the songs? These are by now established songwriters. Professionals. This should have been, despite everything else, production, aesthetic, tone, content, an album of great songs. And it's not.
I get the feeling I may like this album eventually (like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or lager). But right now maybe YOSLY is still too close, too raw. Maybe I'm living in the past. Or maybe the first four songs on that album really were unforgettable?