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Straitjacket Fits


Rob Thomas: ...Something to Be

Melisma/Atlantic, 2005

Rating: 1.6


Posted: April 21, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Matchbox Twenty's 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, boasted a few slight but undeniably melodic alt-rock charms. But like the Goo Goo Dolls, the band gradually abandoned its sturdy modern-rock instincts for the slick, monochromatic balladry of its breakthrough hit "Push." Over its past couple of albums, Matchbox's embrace of that aesthetic has tightened into a crushing bear-hug, squeezing all life out of it.

On his aptly titled solo debut ...Something to Be, Matchbox vocalist Rob Thomas appears to be attempting to free himself from that template. Although his day-job band hasn't disbanded, Thomas has decided that he needs to push his artistic boundaries a bit and see what else he's capable of. That's a laudable goal, to be sure. Trouble is, Thomas has bought into his press so much that he has a distinctly wrongheaded idea of what his strengths are. And ultimately, ...Something to Be plays to the same flaws he displays so prominently with Matchbox Twenty.

Yourself or Someone Like You made the case for Thomas as a kind of younger, modern-rock analog to Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, a wordy, self-serious storyteller whose propensity for ponderousness is offset by a gift for crafting embedding hooks. But where Counting Crows tends toward grandiose MOR rock, on Yourself Matchbox created tight, hummable rock songs ("Real World," "Long Day") that were instantly accessible, if somewhat slight, much like Third Eye Blind. That was the band's true strength, which was in short supply on its sophomore release Mad Season and 2003's More Than You Think You Are.

But between the surprise success of "Smooth," his chart-topping collaboration with Carlos Santana, and Matchbox's continued presence on radio playlists (arguably due more to his post-"Smooth" celebrity more than the songs), Thomas has been hailed as some kind of accomplished master songwriter. ...Something to Be is clear evidence that Thomas believes that hype. So he apparently doesn't bother to question the fact that "This is How a Heart Breaks" is crammed with say-nothing lines like "Don't you wanna go for a ride / Down to the other side" that, um, have nothing to do with detailing a breaking heart. (The last verse is also, inexplicably enough, a tonally inconsistent kiss-off.)

Lyrically, ...Something to Be is filled with the singer's trademark dense, one-sided conversations in the first- and second-person, in which dropping the listener into the middle of a story is supposed to signify immediacy and depth: "Don't let 'em get where they're going to / You know they're only what they think of you" he sings in the opening to "Problem Girl," to which the only proper response is "Huh?" (It doesn't help that Thomas's idea of consoling the titular character is repeating "You're no problem at all.") And on "All That I Am," Thomas stretches his poetic wings with unintentionally humorous results: "I am the one-winged bird flying/ Sinking quickly to the ground ... I am the sound of love's arriving/  Echoed softly on the sand." Again -- huh?

Musically, yes, the album marks a departure from Matchbox Twenty. It's certainly punchier, clearly engineered for Top 40 radio, from the Justin Timberlake/Gavin DeGraw-esque teen-pop declaration "Lonely No More" to the surefire cola-commercial-in-waiting "Streetcorner Symphony," whose spirited horns, classic-rock groove and rousing background vocals create an inclusive vibe designed to appeal to the "Smooth" nation; it's as difficult to shrug off the self-consciously groovin' backdrop as it is to overlook the singer's embarrassing call out to his "sisters and my brothers/ of every different color." (Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?)

But while Matchbox Twenty's sound has taken an increasing turn toward the turgid, it's not primarily the music's fault. Yes, Matchbox could be punchier and add a bit more rock muscle, but it's Thomas's unnerving tendency to take himself far too seriously as a lyricist that has affected the group the most since the occasionally winsome Yourself. Yes, the music is different on ...Something to Be, but the singer remains the same. As long as he continues to believe those who trumpet his vices as virtues, no amount of musical exploration or pretentiously titled solo albums will set him free of the straitjacket he's written himself into.

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