- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

Rob Thomas

… Something to Be

Atlantic Records

The mere mention of Rob Thomas is like a kick in the solar plexus to indie purists. To them, he’s the man most responsible for the wimp-out of late-1990s rock, which demolished the gains made by credible alt-rock revolutionaries earlier in the decade.

The adult-contemporary hit machine Matchbox Twenty was, and remains, Mr. Thomas’ primary vehicle of demolition. But he also has lent his commercial songwriting prowess to oldsters trawling for late-period hits, including Willie Nelson; Mick Jagger; and, of course, Carlos Santana, who tag-teamed with Mr. Thomas for the 1999 salsa-pop smash “Smooth.”

It’s only natural that such a songsmith would want a taste of solo glory.

“… Something to Be,” produced by Matchbox aide-de-camp Matt Serletic, sees Mr. Thomas indulging a hip-hoppy persona (“Maybe I should try to find a downtown whore/That’ll make me look hardcore,” he sing-raps at one point) and reveling in big gospel hooks and hot-pants production values that wouldn’t become Matchbox, even at its chewiest.

The title track and the first single, “Lonely No More,” with their clubby grooves, Ricky Martin-esque horn arrangements, and heaving “Whoa-oh” and “Yeah-yeah” choruses, sound a lot like the boy-band bubble gum to which Matchbox provided a grown-up alternative in the late ‘90s, so it’s odd to hear Mr. Thomas suck up to that demographic now.

“All That I Am” is more like it — a singer unconstrained by rocker band mates telling him to “Grit things up, bro.” Shot through with mealy “winged bird” and “white dove” metaphors, the song builds up grandiosely and flaunts exotic Middle Eastern instrumentation.

Mr. Thomas is best as a balladeer; he can write that brooding, cinematic slow song that guys with backward-pointing baseball caps aren’t embarrassed to listen to. (Think Matchbox’s “Push.”) This is also where Mr. Thomas airs his customary lyrical angst. “Ever the Same” performs those duties here, fading out with a beautifully ringing guitar haiku. Another, weepier ballad, “My, My, My,” will please only the ladies.

The cheer-up-and-smile number “Problem Girl” is simple and affecting; its jangly guitars, not to mention some tasty work from Heartbreakers axman Mike Campbell, happily bring up Tom Petty comparisons. Conversely, the flagrant pilfering of the hook from Sugar Ray’s “Fly” on “Fallin’ to Pieces” is barely forgivable.

Young gun John Mayer drops by for some bluesy Stratocaster work on “Streetcorner Symphony,” a breezy rock-soul arrangement with a message of racial harmony. “Come on over/Down to the corner/My sisters and brothers of every different color,” Mr. Thomas coos.

“Now Comes the Night” closes the proceedings with Mr. Thomas on melancholy piano, crooning, “I will not let you down.”

“Something” isn’t a letdown for Mr. Thomas’ fans. The album is a lot of things: admirably crafty, exasperatingly lightweight. But the one thing it isn’t is disingenuous.

This is who Rob Thomas is, for better and worse.

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