Thursday, February 23, 2012

They've Had Their Day: Matchbox Twenty Falls As Exile[s] On Mainstream.

The Good: Good collection of singles, Moments in the new songs
The Bad: Only six new songs, Does not use medium well, Short
The Basics: Disappointingly little new from Matchbox Twenty - and disappointing for what new there is! - Exile On Mainstream relies on the old hits to sell this disc.

Unlike the seeming legions of people who abandoned MatchBox Twenty after their first album, MatchBox Twenty quickly leapt into my Top Five. It is only now, with Exile On Mainstream that I think they are falling back out. For those who have not read a lot of my reviews, I have a very conservative buying strategy when it comes to compact discs. I get a whole ton of them out from my local library, which has an amazing interlibrary loan policy. But when it comes to actually buying c.d.s, I tend to have a pretty strict "three singles first" rule. Sure, lately, I have been letting that slip as I try to find the next big artist and invest early, but usually a disc must have three tracks I know and love before I will buy it. The exceptions to this rule have been my Top Five, the artists whose work has previously proved itself to me such that I will purchase their new works without hearing even a note. Up until now, those Top Five have been: Heather Nova, Dar Williams, Oasis, Sophie B. Hawkins and Matchbox Twenty.

Matchbox Twenty was not the last one to enter my Top Five (Dar Williams actually was, but she's become pretty highly enshrined there) but it looks like it might be the first one out after Exile On Mainstream. I met the band during their tour promoting Mad Season By Matchbox Twenty and enjoyed their live performance, but now, years later, I am surprised how high I rated More Than You Think You Are. I am equally surprised that it was Adam Gaynor who defected from the quintet (smart money was always on Rob Thomas, though my money was on bassist Brian Yale) and the quartet's latest album, Exile On Mainstream almost seems like a goodbye to Gaynor . . . and perhaps the band.

With two discs, the six track first disc and the eleven track "best of" or "singles" disc, clocking in at 19:35 and 46:35, respectively, Exile On Mainstream is both a new album and retrospective of MatchBox Twenty. Given the group has only three full albums, plus one limited edition EP (appropriately enough entitled EP), it seems especially lazy that their new endeavor would be only six new songs and almost twice as much in recycled content. This is Matchbox Twenty for the radio crowd; fans of the band can't even get rid of More Than You Think You Are as some of the best tracks from that album (namely "Hand Me Down" and "Downfall") are not represented in this collection. To my knowledge, the only track released as a single that does not appear on Exile On Mainstream is "Crutch" from Mad Season By Matchbox Twenty. But because the second disc is pretty much designed to appeal to those who liked Matchbox Twenty on the radio - and not those who already own the songs on the prior albums - I'm going to focus on the first disc.

Wow, six tracks. Is Rob Thomas holding out the best stuff for his solo career? Probably. I suppose Matchbox Twenty must have had some serious creative differences with Thomas: after all, on the other albums he does most of the lead vocals and most of the writing, but he still felt the need to go solo. Coming back, the band seems diminished and the six original tracks lack the emotion and rock and roll nature of the band's earlier works.

First, lyrically, Exile On Mainstream's new works seem unimpressive and far more . . . mainstream than their prior outings. Credited to MatchBox Twenty, all six songs are original to the band, but none of them pop the way that "Push" or "Mad Season" did. In other words, there is nothing as haunting, compelling or original. Indeed, the album's opener, "How Far We've Come" almost seems like the band saying "good-bye." Indeed, with lines like, ". . . I don't really know / And I can't remember caring / For an hour or so / Started crying and I couldn't stop myself / I started running but there's nowhere to run to . . . It was cool, cool / It was just all cool / Now it's over for me / And it's over for you" ("How Far We've Come") even the fans of the band are pretty much ready for this to be the farewell to the band. Sometimes, you just have two albums in you and after that . . .

To be fair, the lyrics are not all of the problem. Take, for example, "I'll Believe You When." Lyrically, this strikes one as very much a Matchbox Twenty song. After all, ". . . I wasn't fair I wasn't nice / But now I've got myself together / When I promise to be better / You say / Whoa / I'll believe you when . . . when everything you say / Don't turn out wrong" ("I'll Believe You When") sounds like the same emotional, depressed, somewhat pessimistic lines that the band made hits out of before. Unfortunately, with the second track, the band illustrates that the emerging problem with Matchbox Twenty is not necessarily the lyrics but the incongruent instrumentals and vocals that accompany it.

Things like the backing vocals (lots of "do-do's") in "All Your Reasons" make the songs sound much more pop than rock and it does not fit. Emotionally, it guts the lines and aurally, it sounds like Kyle and Paul (who are credited with backing vocals on the song) were just saying "Put us in!" It doesn't benefit the song - and I think Paul is an amazing drummer, so it is a shame that he's gone this way - and it lowers the overall appeal of the album. Indeed, this album seems a lot more poppy than any of the three prior endeavors. Ironically, for someone who loves folk rock and pop-rock, I've enjoyed the way Matchbox Twenty has brought some balance to my collection by being more rock and roll than some of my other favorites.

As well, the new tracks seem more repetitive. "These Hard Times" and "If I Fall" seem like they are mostly a few lines repeated over and over and they oscillate between being tiresome and completely unmemorable. Vocally, the lead is still Rob Thomas but he seems to phone it in on this album. "If I Fall" seems to be the only track where he holds a note and his performance on all six songs is safely within his range. Actually, on "If I Fall," his vocals sound at times like he is trying to be Bono and the backing vocals similarly seem familiar in a very U2 kind of way.

But lyrically, the track I was most predisposed towards, "Can't Let You Go" still disappoints me. After all, this sounds like classic Rob Thomas lyrics with lines like "I'll stick around / And see how bad it gets / I'll settle down / and deal with old regrets / You know I / I adore you / I can't let you go . . ." ("Can't Let You Go"). This is exactly the type of clingy angst that made Matchbox Twenty appealing from the outset. But the music here just doesn't back it up. It doesn't have the hook of a "3 A.M." or "Bent." As a result, most of the songs on Exile On Mainstream are actually better poems for moody teenager types than they are songs for adults.

That said, the album's quirks are compounded by the fact that these are two albums. Compact discs can hold a great deal of information and it would have been no problem to squeeze the content of both discs onto a single one. Why two discs? A "now" and "then" disc, fine. But seriously, guys, after EP, having another short disc and trying to sell it on the strength of the second ("greatest hits") disc just seems lazy. And while the lifestyle can be, the artistry of rock and roll can never afford to be lazy.

As for that second disc, it almost makes it worth buying this compact disc. I was glad to see that the oft-neglected "Long Day" was present and all of the legitimate hits like "Push," "3 A.M.," "Bent," and "Unwell" are on that second disc. That makes this the single best investment for radio-only fans of Matchbox Twenty and, for a change, I find myself railing against a "Greatest Hits" type album with the second disc of unreleased material. In short, there's not enough of it. This is not something like U2 or R.E.M.'s two-disc limited edition "Best Of" sets which give the radio singles as well as other tracks to enhance one's appreciation of the band. This is a strangely safe-bet c.d. It's like the band didn't want to release a new album without an insurance policy.

Sadly, though, that bet doesn't pay off with me. Based on the lack of strength of the new material, it's impossible to sell this album to the hard-core fans, especially with the bulk of material being on that second disc. But if you're fan of what you've heard on the radio by Matchbox Twenty but don't want to have to buy their prior outings, Exile On Mainstream may be the way to go.

Until they earn my trust back, with Yourself Or Someone Like You quality of singles I come to know and love, Matchbox Twenty has slipped out of my Top Fi . . . er, Four.

The best tracks are "How Far We've Come" (disc one) and "Mad Season" (disc two), the low points are "If I Fall" (disc one) and "Back 2 Good" (disc two).

For other works by Matchbox Twenty, please be sure to check out:
Yourself Or Someone Like You
Mad Season By Matchbox Twenty
More Than You Think You Are


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page by clicking here!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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