Our Lady Peace are like cockroaches. Not even nuclear holocaust could stop them. They hit the scene in the mid-'90s, one of the most turbulent and forgettable periods in rock (Whither Seven Mary Three, Dishwalla, Deep Blue Something and Marcy Playground?) and survived. Talent and quality will be cited as the reasons for their success, but there is also something to be said for sheer volume; the boys have put out five albums in seven years, which is unheard of in this day and age for anyone who isn't a member of Guided by Voices.
Gravity, Our Lady Peace's fifth album, finds them abandoning the experimental bend of 2001's Spiritual Machines and making a no-muss, stripped-down rock record. And, per music industry law, anyone who makes a no-muss, stripped-down rock record must hire Bob Rock to produce such record. The end result is certainly lean and well crafted, but it also brings out the Oliver Stone in me. See, I have a theory about Gravity. I think it's a Matchbox Twenty record in disguise.
"All For You", the leadoff track, throws the listener off the scent, at least temporarily. With the slow building keyboard line leading to the thundering D-tuned guitar riffs, at which point the song turns into something that sounds like the Fixx, or possibly Rush, we are supposed to believe this is Our Lady Peace letting rip with tempo changes and oddball arrangements. If only the rest of the record held true to this promise. Believe it or not, Our Lady Peace doing quirky '80s rock with a modern sheen doesn't sound nearly as catastrophic as one might think.
The next song gives the game away, though. "Do You Like It" is a mid-tempo tune with some ramped up moments in the bridge when singer Raine Maida confesses "I hate myself for begging / I hate myself for staying / I hate myself for listening to / You." It's super catchy, with Maida playing with the word 'yeah' until it sounds more like 'yea-eee-aaayyy-aay' But it's also frighteningly similar to a Matchbox Twenty song. It's like the flip side to "Push", with the recurring themes of self-loathing and tempestuous, self-destructive relationships. And Rob Thomas could sue over those vocal melodies.
"Made of Steel" is even closer to Rob Thomas than "Do You Like It". That a capella line at the end of chorus, where Maida promises the listener "Your secret's safe with me", makes one wonder if the label politely nudged Maida to write songs that sound like the hits of the day. To Maida's credit, he's a good mimic, and he can write stuff just as good as, or better than, Thomas. But the fact remains he's still mimicking someone else's style instead of forging his own.
All of this discussion about Rob Thomas completely overlooks the most obscene part of this whole discussion. Somehow, some way, Rob Thomas became the songwriter that people and record labels have chosen to hold up as the gold standard for a good pop song. Not Elliott Smith. Not Aimee Mann. Not Neil Finn, Elvis Costello, or even Paul fucking McCartney, for crying out loud. Nope, today's songwriters are being persuaded to write like Rob Thomas.
There's just one problem with this: Rob Thomas is not that good a songwriter.
In fact, he's lowering the standards for what is an acceptable pop song. The very idea that the suits consider Thomas the golden goose is the most damning piece of evidence yet that music is in the sorriest state of its existence. Our Lady Peace is doing themselves far more harm than good by writing Matchbox knockoffs. They should be listening to the Lennon and Cobain records Maida references in "Innocent" instead of anything from Rob Thomas. Radio already sounds horribly homogenous. This only amplifies the problem.
The big MTV2 hit "Somewhere Out There" doesn't poach from the Matchbox but rather the power ballad, the one thing from the days of hair metal that never died. Like most power ballads, it's perfectly inoffensive and nondescript -- it isn't "November Rain", that's for sure -- and more than a little ironic. Maida's voice has always reminded me of someone, and I couldn't nail it down. A couple spins of "Somewhere Out There" brought the answer to me: Johnny Dee from Honeymoon Suite. The Suite, like OLP, are Canucks, and I'll bet dollars to back bacon that one of Honeymoon Suite's records is in Maida's record collection. I can picture a teenage Maida singing "Feel It Again" into his hairbrush so, so vividly.
Another creepy influence pops up on the second half of Gravity: Creed. A good chunk of the later songs have that turgid, plodding beat that is the Creed staple, but none more than "Not Enough". If there is anyone less deserving of being an influential songwriter than Rob Thomas, it's Scott Stapp. The chorus of "Sell My Soul" also has Creed's "stamp" all over it, never mind the title. Thankfully, the rest of the lyrics dwell on more earthly matters.
All is not lost, however. Redemption comes in the form of "Bring Back the Sun", one of the more interesting bits on Gravity. It starts soft as feathers, a tearjerker about, yep, a relationship falling apart at the seams. Spots of strings and what sounds like a muted French horn float in and out, until the song has quietly built into an emotional tempest. It shows a good sense of restraint, even at its busiest.
Our Lady Peace are neither the best nor the worst of their peers in the current world of what is referred to as alternative rock. Think of them as the modern day equivalent of Level 42; they're an honest, genuine group of guys who work their butts off and get the occasional hit single. But they ultimately lack the extra punch needed to grab the brass ring. Gravity might get them closer than ever before, but it's not enough to put them over the top, with or without the Matchbox Twenty soundalikes. Go your own way, boys. Therein lies the road to salvation.