For the uninitiated (stumbled across this band / album by happy chance, maybe?) Matchbox Twenty is perhaps the best kept secret of US music as far as the UK is concerned, although some Brits may remember Rob Thomas, the band's lead singer, accompanying Santana on 1999's 'Smooth'. The band's sound could be described as Counting Crows meets Stereophonics meets itself in a dark alley... Not that the music's too dark - although some of Thomas' lyrical twists make classic just-been-dumped listening - fans of the band's previous two albums ('Yourself or Someone Like You' (1998) and 'Mad Season' (2001)) will already have motored down the M20 with some of m20's dashboard-thumping anthems blaring at their grinning mugs (or at least thought of it...).
So what about m20's latest offering? First impressions were that this was capital-"R" Rock that was in danger of sounding overly commercial, but somehow managed to polish up rougher. All the sophistication you'd hope for from a band's third album is there, and more - it will grab you on first listening, but put a bit more effort in and you will be rewarded by being gripped even tighter.
From the off, first track 'Feel' kicks the listener in the back with Brian Yale's Rottweiler-style bass, and the fact that the next track, 'Disease' was co-written by Mick Jagger might lead one to believe that the stall has been set out firmly in Rockville. However, what follows, in the form of 'Bright Lights', is a complex, building ode to the loss of a loved one to ambition and star-strike, with a strong piano presence, and this rich complexity is continued throughout the album, yet somehow managing to avoid feeling schizophrenic.
Picking notable tracks from a whole album of gems seems unjust, but 'Hand Me Down' stands out as a by-now-trademark ballad of simple, dark beauty, and 'Soul' just has it all - 'nough said.
The band as a whole seems more confident in its ability to part ways together, and return as one at the crucial moment, in the style of the best blues oufits. The sleeve notes testify to Paul Doucette's mastery of more than just drums, and indeed there is more breadth of instrumentation than the brass-dominated 'Mad Season' and the raw guitar of 'Yourself or...'. Kyle Cook is, as ever, in virtuoso control of his 6-stringed beast, with the luxury of being able to depend heavily on the solid platform of Adam Gaynor's rhythm guitar (not to mention the noticeably improved backing vocals of this pair). And then there's Rob Thomas, he of the polished gravel voice - fans will have no complaints, although newcomers may remark on his similarity to Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, or even, on 'Soul' in particular, Jon Bon Jovi.
In conclusion, then, a storm of an album which deserves to set the music scene alight, but in the face of lamentable UK marketing, will probably just start a few Stateside bushfires. Prove me wrong - buy the album, if you've enjoyed any of the offerings from Coldplay, Stereophonics, Counting Crows, Barenaked Ladies or the innumerable new bands with "The..." in their names - I can virtually guarantee that you will end up wondering, like me, why Matchbox Twenty are so unheard of in the UK.
I'll leave the last words to Rob and the boys: "It hits you so much harder than you ever thought it would, but don't you worry, cuz you've got soul..."