Rob Thomas: ‘The Great Unknown’

Rob Thomas

Rob Thomas: The Great Unknown

After waiting patiently for Rob Thomas to redeem himself following two lackluster efforts in a row (the easily forgettable North with Matchbox Twenty as well as his less than stellar second solo collection Cradlesong), alas he returns with The Great Unknown. Unfortunately, this is not Thomas’ musical apex we’ve been anticipating. Instead, what we get on his third solo outing is further proof the once “Smooth” hit maker seems to be all too comfortable toiling away within the fertile field of mediocrity.

Upon first listen, it’s easy to zone out while becoming bogged down in state-of-the-moment production tricks (once again Matt Serletic mans the board on most of the tracks) and lyrical clichés. Perhaps collaborating with the likes of hits-by-numbers tunesmith Ryan Tedder wasn’t exactly the best of ideas? However, if you’re willing to look past these palpable annoyances and mire through the fluff, there are some brilliant moments to be found. For instance,  on the mellifluous title track, Thomas confesses “People are talking, what you can’t unknow/That what you wanted wasn’t real at all.” This is one of the set’s few occasions that remind us what the Grammy-winning songwriter is capable of when he digs down deep and manages to resist his twitterpated instincts to ride current radio trends.

Other engaging highlights are the upbeat “Heaven Help Me” (“A shot of whiskey and we’re young again”), as well as the lachrymose closer “Pieces,” the latter of which includes the prophetic sentiment “Didn’t I tell you, you were gonna break down/Didn’t I warn you, you better take it easy/Try to find a way out/Better start believing in yourself.” These all-too-brief flashes of ardor justify holding out hope that Thomas may someday deliver a solo effort worthy of his still promising, but unfulfilled potential.

Matchbox Twenty: ‘North’

After teasing anticipating fans with the mediocrity of lead-off single “She’s So Mean” (which confirmed trouble was afoot with the group’s latest effort), Matchbox Twenty’s first proper full-length since 2002, North, has finally landed. After waiting a decade to follow up the radio friendlyMore Than You Think You Are, we find ourselves wondering if this really is the best Rob Thomas and crew have to offer following a 10-year hiatus?

Regrettably, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. North is teeming with sub-par radio fodder (the Maroon 5 sound-alike “Put Your Hands Up”) and uninspired tunes full of lyrical clichés (“Sleeping At The Wheel” and “Radio”). The ballad “Overjoyed” and the acoustic “I Will” sound dissonantly like Matchbox Twenty has become trapped inside an endless loop of writing the same ballad repeatedly, ad nauseam. Thomas actually sums up the album best with his own words in the monotonous “Like Sugar,” when he sings: “This ain’t my finest hour.”

Still, North does manage to produce a few brief moments of promise (the brooding opener “Parade” and the picturesque “English Town”), but it mostly smacks of a desperate attempt at a comeback, blatantly rehashing trite lyrics and the bathetic emotionalism of Rob Thomas’ solo efforts. North seems destined to forever relegate Matchbox Twenty into the next generation of unremarkable dad rock.

© 2012 ForASong Media, LLC

David Cook: ‘This Loud Morning’

Okay, let’s forget the American Idol connection for a moment and make a conscious effort to listen to David Cook’s sophomore major label release, This Loud Morning, without prejudice or preconceived notions. After all, Cook wrote and self-produced his indie-debut album Analog Heart before he accidentally became a last minute contestant on the reality talent show. With all biases aside, Cook is an accomplished singer, songwriter, musician, and live performer.

This Loud Morning was recorded in Calabasas, CA and produced by Matt Serletic (Collective Soul, Matchbox Twenty), with six of the twelve tracks mixed at Nashville’s Blackbird studio by Justin Niebank. The album’s theme is loosely weaved around the concept of wanting to escape from overwhelming feelings of hope, love, and heartbreak. This Loud Morning promptly kicks off full of promise with rock-tinged opener “Circadian,” with its dream-like keyboard intro followed by a sequence of heavy piano chords, which slowly builds to a bombastic chorus about wanting to go to sleep and block out the world. “Mayday somebody save me now/And I’m closing my eyes/Because once the sun rises it’s out of my hands,” Cook sings with unbridled conviction before eventually fading out with boys choir-like vocal refrains.

Morning has a much more artistic vibe, combined with a rawness evident in Cook’s vocal performances not found on his previous Rob Cavallo produced release. This is refreshing considering Serletic’s meticulous production style often results in songs becoming trapped in immense layers of over produced schlock. The album includes balanced amounts of strings, piano, and crunchy guitar, which all suit this more mature sounding material. Cook’s more developed lyrics, melodic structures (he co-wrote all 12 tracks), and grittier vocal performances throughout the album abundantly display his overall growth as an artist.

The John Rzeznik co-penned rocker “Right Here with You” is a real winner, as is the mid-tempo “We Believe,” although the latter at times sounds a bit reminiscent of previous hit “Come Back to Me.” However, “We Believe” rocks harder than “Come Back to Me,” and ultimately becomes one of the album’s greater moments. “We believe there’s a reason that we’re all here/that every doubt will disappear/We believe that tomorrow carries something new/And after everything that we’ve been through/We believe,” Cook repeats with optimism throughout the first-rate pop song’s chorus.

The gorgeous “Fade Into Me” has a nice melody, and its sentimental lyrics will surely make it a favorite among Cook’s passionate female fans, but the album’s real knockout is “Take Me As I Am.” This epic ballad, complete with soaring strings, is both emotionally moving and ultra-melodic, and seems to be the obvious choice for the next single. “Take me as I am/right here where I stand/Open up your arms and let me in/Out here on my own/I know I’m not alone/Let me in your heart right where you stand,” Cook demands, in his best vocal performance to date.

Unfortunately, the album’s second half seems to land in a bit of a quagmire. The bounciness of “The Last Goodbye” (co-penned by Ryan Tedder), seems to have been a poor choice as the lead single, given the fact the album is filled with potential hits. And the easily forgettable “Paper Heart” wins the unflattering designation as the album’s one and only bonafide dud.

However, things do recover with the excellent “4 Letter Word,” which is a standout mid-tempo rock ballad despite its clichéd song title, as is “Goodbye to the Girl.” While the latter regrettably gets diluted down by Serletic’s overblown production, we can only hope future live performances will see it reach its subsequent potential.

This Loud Morning offers an irresistible balance of pop and rock to satisfy existing fans and entice new ones to Cook’s musical camp, especially those oblivious to Cook’s season seven Idol win. The album’s closer “Rapid Eye Movement,” is an ambitious six-minute rocker, which ends with the same intro heard in the opening track, making the album sound like an endless musical loop. This technique serves to entice the listener to return to the beginning of the album for repeated spins. While you may be too clever to fall for such a trick, these 12 tracks do indeed seem to get irresistibly better with each repeated listen.

© 2011 ForASong Media, LLC