Sometimes the thing that makes a song memorable is a blinding flash of the obvious. A little twist on a riff that's been around for decades or a lyric reflecting a feeling that just about everyone has. Wishing the world would just stop being a hassle is about as universal as you can get. Ultimately, that's the triumph of "Real World."
Born during the Cold War, Matchbox Twenty lead singer Rob Thomas was the offspring of military parents stationed in Germany. Following the tour of duty, Rob's family returned to the U.S. and settled in the southeast. In high school Thomas fronted several bands and was influenced by R.E.M., Elvis Costello and Al Green. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty, Thomas roamed around hitch hiking. His family had problems, his relationships had problems and inserting some distance (both physical and mental) seemed like a good idea. Later, his experiences/frustrations surfaced in Matchbox Twenty songs.
Thomas spent a lot of nights sitting on freeway on-ramps waiting for the next ride. He used this time to write songs or, if he was tired of that, just go a little crazy and start screaming. There was no one around. What did it matter? Thomas eventually teamed up with Kyle Cook (guitar/vocals), Adam Gaynor (rhythm guitar/vocals), Brian Yale (bass) and Paul Doucette (drums). Yale and Doucette had played with Thomas in a couple of bands. With Cook and Gaynor onboard, Matchbox Twenty worked with Collective Soul producer Matt Serletic and recorded some demos that got them signed to Atlantic Records.
"Yourself Or Someone Like You" was their debut effort, selling over ten million CDs. Even though the songs dealt with emotional abuse, break-ups and insecurities things never got maudlin or sloppy. "Long Day" was the first song to make an impact. "Real World," a jangling Rocker, came across as an in-joke more than anything else. The boastful "3AM" was another fun song with a great chorus. "Push" got a lot of attention because of the line "I wanna push you down." According to Thomas the song was about emotional rather than physical abuse. Part of the song was written from an ex-girlfriend's point of view. In Rock, as in the real world, ex-girlfriends rarely come off good.
In another blinding flash of the obvious, Thomas also sang "Smooth" on Carlos Santana's "Supernatural" CD. Thomas wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the music with Itaal Shur. It was the longest running #1 single (12 weeks) on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999.
The group continued on a roll with Serletic returning for the '01 release "Mad Season" and '02's "More Than You Think You Are." Thomas took a solo turn on "Something To Be" in '05. That was followed by two live offerings, "A Night In The Life Of Matchbox Twenty" and "EP."
Gaynor's '05 departure led to another change. Doucette moved from drums to rhythm guitar (and piano). Drummer Ryan Mac MacMillian came onboard in '07.
Well, conventional wisdom says that when the lead singer is occupied with solo pursuits and the live material starts to roll out, the band is done. If the group releases a "best of/greatest hits" compilation then you know their fate is sealed. Matchbox Twenty did issue their "greatest hits" in '07, "Exile On Mainstream." They're toast, right?
Just to confound everyone they also included new songs produced by Steve Lillywhite (U2) as part of the "Exile On Mainstream" package. It was the first time the group worked with the marquee producer. The album's lead single, "How Far We've Come," did some immediate damage on the pop charts.
Not looking like a group on the ropes, Matchbox Twenty made T.V. promotional appearances/performances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, NBC's Today and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Coming off the tour supporting "Exile On Mainstream," Thomas began work on his sophomore solo set, "Cradlesong."
Talk of a new Matchbox Twenty album began in '10 and even though it had been eight years since their last full album of original material, this was not going to be a rush job. The focus was on getting it right.
"It's a real important record for us. We haven't done anything in a long time," stated Doucette. "The older we get, the more we realize and appreciate the good fortune we have to do what we do at this level. Realistically, how many more times do we get? So we're going to really make this record the one we want it to be."
"She's So Mean," the lead single from "North," was released in the summer of '12 with the album dropping three months later.
Thomas resumed his solo career delivering "The Great Unknown." The set went to #6 on the Billboard 200.
1996 Yourself Or Someone Like You
2000 Mad Season
2002 More Than You Think You Are
2007 Exile On Mainstream
Matchbox Twenty's "Yourself Or Someone Like You" with "Real World" has more bite, energy and force than the follow-up "Mad Season." But "Mad Season" has its own punch with "Stop," "Angry" and the huge hit "Bent." Thomas wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Also, there's some excellent guitar work from Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor (especially on the title track).
By the third album a group is either out of ideas or expanding their perimeters. Matchbox Twenty is on the latter trajectory with "More Than You Think You Are." Steel guitar and keyboards add texture as the group ventures (slightly) beyond the quartet-fronted-by-a-tortured-singer mode.
Adding new material to a "greatest hits" set will remind fans that the group is still vital, still relevant. On the other hand, it could pale in comparison with earlier material and brutally illustrate how far the band has fallen. Unfortunately, the latter is evident on "Exile On Mainstream."
"North" features "She's So Mean," a clever pop song with both vocal and lyrical bite ("she's like a one way ticket because she can't come back") and "Put Your Hands Up," a cheesy dance track that's actually pretty good. These tracks, plus "Parade" and "Radio" make "North" a decent comeback.