Upon its release in 1996, Matchbox Twenty's debut album Yourself and Someone Like You didn't seem like a sure-fire blockbuster, partially because in the wake of grunge and alt-rock, it seemed a little too straightforward, anthemic, and mainstream. As it turned out, those were the very things that made it a huge success. It stayed on the charts for ...
Upon its release in 1996, Matchbox Twenty's debut album Yourself and Someone Like You didn't seem like a sure-fire blockbuster, partially because in the wake of grunge and alt-rock, it seemed a little too straightforward, anthemic, and mainstream. As it turned out, those were the very things that made it a huge success. It stayed on the charts for years, as it spun off a series of singles that found their niche on rock and pop radio, then stayed there for the better course of a year. As the group prepared their second album, they didn't fade away, thanks to the unexpected success of lead singer/songwriter Rob Thomas's guest vocals on Santana's comeback single, "Smooth." That song had Latin rhythms that tagged it as a Santana song, but its classicist structure and earnest melodicism made it seem as much a Matchbox Twenty tune as a Santana number. Whether the success of "Smooth" was a factor in shaping the sound of the group's second album, Mad Season, may not matter much, even if the record boasts a huge, smooth production and is considerably more varied and accomplished than its predecessor. Chances are, the group was headed in that direction anyway. And thankfully so -- the loud guitars, direct production, and bombastic vocalizing that characterized Yourself or Someone Like You undercut the group's ability to craft sturdy, mainstream rock. On Mad Season, Matchbox Twenty seems unashamed that they sound their best when they're simply a mainstream rock band. They're not just unashamed, they exploit this as their strength by expanding the production, adding horns and layers of keyboards to their sound, opening up the mix, and emphasizing their melodies. While that shift in direction may disarm some fans of the debut, which was pretty much just straight guitars, the band winds up with a big, bright, shiny album that's considerably more colorful than it's predecessor. That alone makes Mad Season a more engaging record than the debut, but it also is the real surprise of the group's growth as craftsmen and Thomas' progression as a songwriter and singer. Prior to this album, Thomas had a tendency to oversell his songs, not just in the delivery but in the writing, and the band followed him along. Here, he and the group tone down their performances, never pushing themselves to oversell a song. True, the end result is heavily produced and filled with little details, but the overall feel is more relaxed and welcoming than Yourself or Someone Like You, since the band has accepted their identity as a mainstream rock band. Of course, it also helps that they have a solid set of songs -- a set that eclipses their previous effort, even if there are a few dull moments here and there. Even with those occasional missteps, the end result is a strong, entertaining, unabashedly mainstream record that shows the band finding their own voice. Since it is a mainstream affair, it may not win them any new fans -- after all, they captured the mainstream with their debut -- but the band's detractors may grudgingly admit that these tunes sound better on the radio (which is where they sound the best) than those from the first LP. [Mad Season was also released in a limited-edition special package, which essentially was a small hardcover book containing the liner notes and the disc itself. There is no exclusive material in this special edition, outside of the packaging itself.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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