You know how most bands start off pretty cool, and then success turns them into either a hollow shell of what they once were or they end up just coasting to the next paycheck? Well, Matchbox Twenty have flipped that theory into reverse over the past decade or so. When they jumped onto the scene, they were just another faceless post-grunge rock band, noticeable only because they sold more records than anyone else and because of lead singer Rob Thomas’s annoying tendency to slip into overly Southern syntax, which was right in line with his every guy schlubiness.
Something happened in between the band’s first album and their second, 2000s pretty damn decent Mad Season. It could have been success giving Thomas the confidence to craft better songs, it could have been life experience, it could have been the ginormous #1 hit and Grammy love that Thomas received for co-writing and singing on Santana’s comeback single “Smooth”. Any way you look at it, Matchbox 20 (who had by that time had pretentiously made the adjustment to Matchbox Twenty) suddenly became a good band, at least in my eyes. I’m sure there are tons of other folks who still consider the band faceless and Thomas a hack.
A decade into their career, here’s Exile On Mainstream, a career retrospective with six new tracks, split onto two discs. It’s hard to tell whether this constitutes a creative renaissance of the band, or whether it’s Thomas performing last rites on the band before he heads off to pursue his solo career (which began with 2005’s “Something To Be…”) full-time. Plenty of other things about this set manage to confuse. Why make this a 2-disc set when the album’s seventeen tracks could have fairly easily fit onto one disc, and why reform the band if the end result is six incredibly mediocre songs that Thomas could do just as well, if not better, on his own?
The hits do pretty well in chronicling the band’s upward swing. I still haven’t been able to get the bad taste out of my mouth when it comes to some of their early singles-tracks like the passive-aggressive “Push” and the cliched “Real World”. They still make me retch, partially from over familiarity, partially because they’re just bad. However, this hits album saves 2 of the 3 best songs from Matchbox’s debut album (“3 A.M.“ and “Back 2 Good”) and saves you the need to buy “Yourself Or Someone Like You” (although, to be honest, you can get it used online for a dollar at this point). While their later albums’ singles are fantastic, “If You’re Gone” is a haunting love song, “Unwell” is saved from mediocrity by a country-specked banjo, “Disease” is a snotty Stones pastiche that’s enlivened by the pen of the actual Mick Jagger, there are even better songs to be found in the recesses of the original albums. If you’re familiar enough with the band that you enjoy these songs, hearing Mad Season and More Than You Think You Are in their entirety is probably more worthwhile than copping this compilation.
The album’s new songs, honestly, don’t amount to much more than OK filler. Hell, it could be that they ARE filler masquerading as “new music”. None of the songs are outright bad, but they give you the image of a band coasting and collecting checks rather than pushing their music forward creatively. You get OK genre exercises like the doo-wopish “Can’t Let You Go”, the country-flavored “I’ll Believe You When” and the unnecessarily loud first single “How Far We’ve Come”. None of these songs make me want to throw the CD player out the window like some of the songs from the band’s first album, but it would seem that Rob Thomas has outgrown his band (which most people have been saying since the Santana hookup back in ‘99).
As someone who happens to think that Rob Thomas is a pretty good songwriter and vocalist (at the risk of the little cred I have left), I gotta say I’m a bit disappointed with Exile On Mainstream. If you’re a casual fan, this might be a decent buy as it gives you a very basic overview of the band’s career. If you’re a little more invested in Matchbox Twenty’s music, you probably don’t need this, not only because you probably (hopefully?) already have the original albums the hits appeared on, but also because the new songs here aren’t exactly worth writing home about. If you find that you desperately need the new tracks, hey, there’s always iTunes, where you can just buy the new material and save yourself ten bucks.