Sunday, August 23, 2015

Rob Thomas lets go of his security blanket...only to trade for another - yet still with good result

Rob Thomas has managed to become, by sheer accident, a latter-day Phil Collins.  Maybe not in terms of musical style, but definitely within the context of doing his own solo work while still (After their 2012 resurgence, admittedly) managing to keep his association with Matchbox 20 strong.  6 years after his #2, out comes #3 "The Great Unknown."  There are a few rough patches, but Thomas seems to be finding his groove more so than on the overly schmaltzy "Cradlesong."

Matchbox 20's "North" showed Thomas as the confident front man of a band that makes no bones about what it does, and does best - straight up pop rock, polished to a sheen and clean as a whistle from front to back.  This considered, it makes his solo outings a perfect way to stretch into the pop leanings that would be just a bit too pop for a Matchbox 20 outing.  To that end, this time he enlists Matt Serletic, his longtime partner in crime, but with some outside help.  The well known Ryan Tedder, and less well known Noel Zancanella, Ricky Reed, Shep Goodman and Aaron Accetta round out the list of producers drawn in to help spice up his offerings.  And for the most part, they help steer Thomas off the addiction to schmaltz (as previously mentioned was a problem on the overly self-serious Cradlesong record.)  Opening cut "I think we'd feel good together" rides a made-to-tap-your-toes-to beat, and the momentum picks up even more steam with the Tedder-assisted debut single "Trust you."  Whether this was written from the perspective of the happily married Thomas feeling temptations to stray, or just a generalized vibe on that same subject, it hardly matters when the sticky-as-glue hooks pull you in.  Tedder is definitely a better fit here - where Serletic seemed to stumble at helping to create speedier pop soundscapes with Thomas on his past 2 outings, Tedder's steady hand keeps the arrangement tight and fun to listen to front to back.

For those enjoying a more slowed-down vibe, Track 3 is ready to greet them with a shuffling, almost-country dash of that aforementioned schmaltz with "Hold on forever."  This time the schmaltz is presented in more reasonable quantities, and is far more palatable.  More of the same can be found on the moody, atmospherics-drenched title track, which is a painfully deliberate throwback to some of his most spacey tracks from his solo debut "Something to Be."  This time, however, he makes it sound more like the fully realized idea - where on album #1 it sounded like a demo that may have better off being left on the cutting room floor.  Later on in the proceedings, "Paper Dolls" rolls eerily through an echoing, ghostly track that feels like a long-after-the-fact sequel to Matchbox 20's "Bed of Lies."  It is common ground, and ground that Thomas treads maybe a bit too often, but damned if he doesn't give it his all while he's doing it.  The crown jewel of this comes in a track that almost feels like a defensive move - where Thomas and Serletic are out to prove that while they did blend in the work of other collaborators on this disc, that they can still stand on their own in making a song that expertly treads that thin line between light rock and full on pop - in the form of late-album track "Lie to me."  With the echoing "Yeah yeah yeah" and stuttering machine-gun drum hits pulsing throughout the track, they create a truly visceral, gut wrenching track.  Thomas may be a [one would assume] happily married man, but once again, damned if he doesn't pump out a real tearjerker here.  This track is all over the place - blending desperation, confusion, and impending heartache - all wrapped up together in a neat package.  Once again, this is a maybe too-familiar subject for Thomas, but when he manages to keep spinning fresh variations on the same theme, and still make them with some impact, most listeners would be hard pressed to care.  

At the end of the day, Thomas may never have a truly "perfect" album in him, but with his 3rd solo outing, a handful of mis-steps aside, this may be the closest he's come yet, and is definitely worth the listen.

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