Push, Don't Shove

Florida's Matchbox Twenty released their debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You in 1996, during mainstream alternative music's last dying whimper. Along with other numerically oriented bands such as Third Eye Blind, Blink 182 and Stroke 9, lead singer Rob Thomas and pals ushered in a wave of faceless, interchangeable rock bands at levels unheard of since people taxed their precious gray matter trying to distinguish the corporate rock of REO Speedwagon, Journey and Loverboy.

With hit singles such as "Push," "Real World" and "3am," Matchbox Twenty established themselves with a pasteurized form of radio-friendly pop-rock that shied from extremes, never being too rockin' or even that catchy, for that matter. Their songs invariably hover in the midtempo range, with unobtrusive guitars never overpowering songwriter Thomas's not-very-powerful voice, a voice that strains to show emotion, but never much soul.

Nevertheless, like wholesomely good milk, the group's music easily washed down the throat of America, selling more than 10 million copies in the process. A four-year span between albums would seem almost suicidal in this amnesia-prone marketplace, but thanks to Thomas' ubiquitous collaboration with Santana, "Smooth," Matchbox Twenty have managed to stay on the pop culture radar screen.

Showing that no one is gonna, er, push him around, Thomas and cronies now have finally returned with another collection of college-drop-out-working-man's rock and guitar-driven quasi anthems. "Angry" (RealAudio excerpt) begins the album with Adam Gaynor's rhythm guitar strumming as Thomas softly sings of a relationship that has ended. When the chorus starts, the rest of the band kicks in, forcing Thomas to sing the refrain ("And it's good that I'm not angry/ I just need to get over/ I'm not angry, anymore") louder and more expressively — at least, as expressively as his limited range will allow.

The songs that work, both the rock 'n' roll numbers and the ballads, mostly get by on their catchy choruses, such as "Black & White people," "If You're Gone," and the new album's first single, "The Burn," a lighter-waving anthem that is no doubt coming soon to a radio near you. "Last Beautiful Girl" (RealAudio excerpt), as its title indicates, is quite gorgeous, with a floating melody and fluffy backing vocals that make it the highlight of the album.

"Angry," "Crutch," "Leave" and "Stop" are filler in the most pedestrian of senses (maybe it's the single word titles?).

"Stop" highlights the band at their most intense — though the term white hot rock 'n' roll is far from the truth — and shows Thomas at his angriest, if not his most eloquent ("You'd better stop stop stop using me up/ You'd better stop/ 'Cause I've had enough").

"Rest Stop" (RealAudio excerpt), "The Burn," "Bed of Lies" and the title track are perfectly acceptable, but also ultimately forgettable in their road-worn lyrical sentiments ("I will not sleep in this bed of lies") and middle-of-the-road instrumentation; let's just say dynamics are not this band's forte.

All in all, the album can be evenly divided into the above average, the average and the below average. It's a pretty good ratio, one that should spawn enough singles to keep Matchbox Twenty pumping on the radio and their label's bean counters happy. At the end of the day, though, like its predecessor,Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty is a relatively bloodless album, a work that seems formatted to satisfy the demands of the marketplace without really transcending them.