Matchbox 20’s frontman, Rob Thomas, has openly flirted with solo stardom in the past as a co-writer and collaborator on Santana’s smash hit “Smooth.” Something to Be, Thomas’ first full-length solo release, finds the dramatic vocalist teetering on the brink of greatness, but often falling just short of the mark. Employing an all-star cast of guest musicians, Rob Thomas offers up a palette of tightly-produced pop tunes, horn-infused rockers and the singular ballad, “Now Comes the Night,” which aptly closes the album.
Most notable out of my qualms with Something to Be is the production on the first few tracks. The overt use of a synthesizer, carefully disguised in the liner notes as “keys” played by producer Matt Serletic, places an undesirable edge on the disc’s first two numbers. “This is How a Heart Breaks,” which begins simply enough with sustained piano chords and a straightforward drum beat, is overtaken by a mass of electronica in the second verse, transforming the would-be solid song into something resembling boyband bliss, which should have been forever discarded sometime around 1999. Thomas’ quick vocal cadence in the bridge and the annoying female background vocals only add to the mess.
The following track, “Lonely No More,” bears the same burden of over-production. As evidenced by his work with Matchbox 20, Thomas conveys an organic element through his songs, which, although apparent on these first two numbers, are quickly butchered by the onset of too much too fast. While Matchbox 20’s work was by no means bereft of intense production and often benefited from such a strategy, it is apparent that the band’s chemistry somehow acted to catalytically congeal the sound. This provided focus, as opposed to the smattering of seemingly random sounds on the first ten minutes of Something to Be.
Much to Thomas’ credit, the album improves substantially as it rolls along. “Ever the Same” sounds much more stable, reminiscent of the songwriter’s previous efforts. “I Am an Illusion,” which features sensational guitarist Robert Randolph adding a lap steel guitar track, is further enhanced through the addition of a small horn section, comprised of Gary Grant on trumpet and saxophonist Brandon Fields. The authentic tone of these instruments effectively counters the still-present synthesizer. Randolph complements the track with subtle overtones as opposed to his usual over-the-top approach.
From this point on, the album makes a turn and never looks back. Four of the next five tunes feature Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame, on guitar. Campbell, a 25-year veteran of the music scene is exceptionally qualified to make contributions via the guitar that add substantially to a song without ever sounding too busy. His slide work on “Something to Be” blends perfectly with the horn section and his effortless solo helps to burgeon the acoustic “Problem Girl,” whose intro is a dead ringer for Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” Campbell takes a funky approach on “Fallin’ to Pieces,” a number which allows Thomas to stretch his notes and at times belt out the word “lonely” with a rather Roy Orbison-esque vocal inflection.
The album closes with a pair of numbers which are perhaps the best on the CD, both from a songwriting and a production standpoint. “Streetcorner Symphony” would have been impressive in its original form, with a loose groove, a frolicking melody and the interplay of a four-part horn section. The final touch on the track was added by John Mayer, one of Thomas’s contemporaries in the singer/songwriter scene. Though Mayer’s smoky voice and acoustic guitar playing, which propelled him to critical acclaim are not present here, the vibrant electric guitar work that signaled his entry into the music scene signifies completion for “Streetcorner Symphony,” embracing funkiness and the blues.
“Now Comes the Night,” the final cut, was recorded live in the studio, with Thomas playing piano and singing while Matt Serletic added string accompaniment via the keyboard. This ending ballad is slow and solemn, a veritable cross between Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out” and Marc Cohn’s “The Things We’ve Handed Down.” Thomas’ lyrics, which he describes on the bonus DVD as the idea that memories are left behind when someone dies, are touching. By no means a poet, Thomas manages to convey his point through the song with simplicity, as is his style.
With the emergence of studio computer programs and the prominence of bands such as Radiohead, who readily employ artificial noises as a part of their music, it is hardly surprising that a digital approach was adopted at multiple times on this record. However, as is evidenced by the songs themselves, the best music on this album is also the rawest sounding. Rob Thomas shines when he is in his element and although this is the case for much of the album, there are certainly instances when he was bogged down tremendously by computer-based artifice, which in turn made the songs sound busy rather than musical.