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Matchbox Mediocrity: Band returns with run-of-the-mill effort

James Costa | Monday, October 15, 2007

Matchbox Twenty is back.

The band that sold about 40 million records since 1996 and piled up quite the laundry list of hits such as “Real World,” “3 A.M.,” “Bent,” “If You’re Gone” and “Back 2 Good” has released a two disc package. It features a fresh set of six new songs on one disc and an 11-track greatest hits disc with on the other.

Many fans had immediate reservations after hearing about the two disc idea. For one thing, the band maintains that this is not the end of the road. Yet if this were true, there would be no reason to release a greatest hits record after only three full studio releases.

Upon buying the record, it feels almost obnoxious to pick up a CD titled, “Exile on Mainstream” and realizing the obvious pun on the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” album. Further cemented in the minds of listeners is the idea that MB20 is quite content to forever be the lesser version of another band and another sound.

The new disc of songs carries no tune particularly original or groundbreaking. All six tracks could have been stuck onto one of the band’s three earlier releases and no one would have noticed.

For the first time in the band’s history, Rob Thomas is not the only person writing the songs. Instead, all writing credit is given to Matchbox Twenty as a band, with Thomas receiving no singular acknowledgment. At first, this seems like an interesting concept. Then, the songs start playing and it’s pretty clear that perhaps the whole “sharing responsibility” song-writing philosophy of the band was a bad idea.

Certain tracks including “I’ll Believe You When” and “All Your Reasons” are clearly damaged by the band’s new spirit of collaboration. Rather than let Thomas’ voice shine, the songs sound cluttered and force Thomas to sing above the clamor. It’s busy music and it’s just not that good.

Most hardcore MB20 fans will say they love the new stuff. They’ll say the band is turning new corners and reaching new heights. But the thing is, the band just isn’t getting any better. After a few years off and Thomas’ solo success in the rear-view mirror, it seems stuck right back in 2000.

Little of the raw energy and excitement felt in 1996’s “Yourself or Someone Like You” is apparent in the six new tracks released with Exile, while the songs would at best be considered mediocre if found on the band’s 2000 album “Mad Season.”

The band’s first single on “Exile” is the catchy pseudo-anthem “How Far We’ve Come.” It isn’t bad. The song has a little bit of the anger and emotion so dearly associated with vintage Matchbox, except that it’s overproduced and slightly too poppy. The lyrics don’t contain the powerful and personal effect that Matchbox’s most enduring songs did, instead opting for the exaggeratedly extreme words, “Waking up at the start of the end of the world/ But it’s feeling just like every other morning before/ Now I wonder what my life is gonna mean when it’s gone.” We all know Thomas and friends can’t really be serious with this stuff. It’s all just a little too much.

One of the few highlights out of the new songs is the album closer “Can’t Let You Go.” Blending elements of old and new Matchbox into a musical reality that actually feels like it’s making something new, the song is a pleasure to hear. Interestingly, it also serves to rescue a six-song disc that would otherwise be way too easy to pan.

The band plans to tour this winter in support of “Exile.” You should go with the hopes that they’ll play music the way they used to, with the emotion that they never should have lost.