AUTHOR'S NOTE: This original review was written in May of 2000, just after Singer Rob Thomas had the crazy successful single "Smooth" with Santana. Many solid releases followed, but in an Instagram post from April 9, 2016, Kyle Cook announced his departure from Matchbox Twenty, citing "deterioration of communication, disagreements on when, where and how we tour and a general breakdown of democracy within the group." However, less than a year later on March 27, 2017, Cook announced Matchbox Twenty's North American co-headlining summer tour with Counting Crows. You can read more about Matchbox Twenty here.
They are the most dreaded two words a hardworking rock band can hear. The words ring in their ears ’til their hoops jangle and leave them shaking in their dusty engineer boots. Certainly, the last thing they want to do is hear them after a hugely successful debut record and 600 gigs in 3 years. Nevertheless, here they are: “SOPHOMORE CURSE”.
For those not familiar with this record company nightmare, it refers to the seemingly innate manner in which otherwise flourishing young bands follow up million-selling debut albums with, for lack of a better word, crap. Their second release usually seems hastily thrown together and often bears a very close and ultimately boring resemblance to the first record. Of course, the explanations for this phenomenon are many and far-reaching, ranging from bad karmic alignment to very long-lasting hangovers. In reality, the answer is likely far less sexy than all that – the sad majority just don’t have the musical innards to keep creating interesting music.
How does a potentially great band avoid the curse? Well, if you follow the example of matchbox twenty, the answer is simple: you draw on every ounce of creativity, talent, and raw energy you have and focus all your efforts on your studio work.
Then, just for good measure, you have your singer co-write one of the hottest singles of the past decade and perform on the highest-selling album of the year.
“Certainly, the Santana thing didn’t hurt us,” snickers matchbox twenty guitarist Kyle Cook from the Atlantic offices in Georgia, “though we were a bit concerned when Rob (Thomas) was recording “Smooth” that we would be somehow lumped into the whole Latin pop thing that was really exploding at the time. Of course, what it really did was bring our music to a whole other demographic.”
Slightly understated. “Smooth”, co-written and performed by matchbox singer Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana, has driven Santana’s comeback album “Supernatural” up past 1 million units in Canada alone. It achieved the coveted all-format crossover status recently attained by artists like Alanis Morissette and Lauryn Hill, solidifying a far-reaching fan base from pre-teens to retirees.
Just what effect this kind of huge success will have on matchbox twenty will be seen in the coming months, after the release of their second album, “mad season by matchbox twenty” on May 23rd. This 13-song collection of straight-ahead rock melodies follows up the solid success of their 1996 debut “yourself or someone like you”, and makes a concerted effort to embrace the soul of that record while pushing past the trap of self-imitation to really define their true sound.
“The last thing we wanted to do was release a re-written version of the last record, and I really feel that we avoided that”, insists Cook. “The first album was us just getting our feet wet – it kind of hit the ground running and was very raw. This time around we took a lot more time to nurture the sound and the feel of the record. The songs were more carefully arranged. The most noticeable similarity it has to the last album is the fact that Rob still knows how to capture a melody.”
Indeed, Thomas seems to have taken the writing process of this record very seriously. Following an extended break from the grueling touring schedule of the last album, Rob and producer Matt Serletic (who also produced the debut) locked themselves in a North Carolina cabin for a fairly intense writing session. What emerged was the skeleton of the new album, but Cook insists that it was the studio process where the songs really took life.
” We all took one giant step forward with Mad Season, really pushing our techniques and abilities to the max. We also brought in some horns and strings to fill out the sound. The real stand-out element on this record is the backbone, which I think the past few years experience has given us.”
Certainly Mad Season’s sound shows an instrumental thickness and texture that was less visible on Yourself Or Someone Like You. Songs like “Black and White People”, “Crutch” and “Angry” vibrate with rhythm-rich guitar lines and pumped up horn arrangements, while “You Won’t Be Mine” reinforces its lyrical sentiment with a 68-piece orchestra. The backup vocals emerge from songs with a real Beatlesque weight, swelling up behind Thomas’s distinct voice with strikingly intricate harmonies, especially in tunes like “Last Beautiful Girl” and “Mad Season”.
It is the melodies, however, that will resonate with listeners most. “If You’re Gone” is a strong ballad so smooth and lyrical that the longing is almost palpable, and “Bed Of Lies” has a memorable chorus that could take its place confidently behind songs by Billy Joel or Elvis Costello. “Rob did a lot more writing on piano this time around,” says Cook, ” and I personally think that makes the songs more interesting. His chord knowledge is better on piano than it is on guitar, so the patterns have more variety and excitement to them.”
Not surprisingly, it’s the integrity of the music on Mad Season that is most important to Kyle Cook. As a graduate of the Atlanta Institute Of Music, he brings years of theory and technique to a band that roots itself in bar room rock. “The school experience was great and I would do it all again. I got to spend all my time learning and playing with unbelievably talented players. It certainly helped my playing, but it’s not integral to what we do in matchbox. Rob understands theory but writes from his gut. All the music instruction in the world can’t create a truly good piece of rock ‘n roll.”
If anything, Mad Season is just that – good rock ‘n roll complete with great hooks and honest emotion. As for the ‘sophomore curse’, matchbox twenty’s manager Michael Lippman told Billboard magazine recently that “we’ve been listening to everyone tell us how this record is going to fail, how we’re a one-hit wonder, even if we’ve had four or five top singles. All that makes us do is work harder and come together stronger.” Cook’s view is muted but positive. “I’m incredibly proud of this record. That won’t change whether we sell one copy or one million.”