It always seems that when one band hits it big, there is another similar band ready to challenge them for the top spot. Well, it is not so much that they are there to challenge, so much as fans will take sides and draw a line in the sand creating a feud where there is none. Well, even that may be overstating the case, but it is there. In the mid to late 1990's radio rock was making a comeback following the decline of the grunge era and amid the rise of nu-metal. These radio friendly rock acts featured Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20 as their biggest poster children. Both acts had debut albums with a number of popular hits and were so similar that the line drawn in the sand was inevitable as fans began to take sides. I was more to the Third Eye Blind side of the coin but both had definite skills with song crafting. Nothing mind blowing, but very solid.
As that era died out, the bands soldiered on. However, matchbox 20 front man Rob Thomas began to explore other outlets. In 1999 he as a guest performer on Carlos Santana's Supernatural album, singing on the smash Grammy winning tune "Smooth." That was in 1999, and appears to have been a good test for a possible solo run as his profile rose considerably with the Santana collaboration. His first solo album was released in 2005 an proved to be a hit. Now, here we are, four years later, face to face with a new solo album (with a new matchbox 20 album in between).
If you know me, or have been reading me for an length of time, you likely know that I am a metal guy, a fan of all things heavy. Rob Thomas is decidedly not metal. Seriously, I have heard soft rock artists more metal than Rob Thomas. Still, I have decided to stretch out of my safe zone, if just a little, to give Cradlesong a shot. As I listen to it, I find it impossible to not be won over by the finely crafted radio rock as sung by someone who strikes me as very secure in his ability to turn a song and capture a crowd.
I passed over Thomas' 2005 solo debut, …Something to Be. I just never had any interest. Perhaps I should go back and give it a spin? This new album is quite good and provides a positive vehicle for his assured voice and skilled songwriting hand. There is a distinct difference between these songs and his work with matchbox 20 and is reminiscent of Chris Cornell's work with Soundgarden and Audioslave versus his solo work. These songs are finely focused on the voice and the songwriter. They do not have to worry about band concerns, and if you listen to matchbox tunes and then solo tunes, listen to the bands, the approach is very different. Neither way is wrong, they are just tailored for a different purpose. For Rob Thomas, of you want pure Thomas, this is the album you will want.
Every song on Cradlesong is right around the same pace, thereby making this album ideal to play as background music to whatever else you may be doing without having to worry about having to make millions of volume adjustments. However, if you play it in the background you run the risk of getting caught up in a song and being completely and utterly distracted from what you were doing. Just think of songs like "Gasoline," "Give Me the Meltdown," and "Still Ain't Over You."
Rob Thomas may not have the greatest voice I have ever heard, but there is a great deal of sincerity in how he sings, which may be more important than the quality of the voice (not that he has a bad voice at all). He sings of love, life, emotion, and relationships from first hand experience, nothing sounds put on or insincere. His voice carries a lot of weight in the delivery. Just listen to the truths he delivers in "Someday," "Hard on You," and "Getting Late."
Bottomline. I doubt I will ever be able to be called a full-fledged Rob Thomas fan, but if he keeps generating material like this, I suspect it will be a long time before we stop hearing from him. That is not a bad thing. He knows how to write a song, sing a song, and enjoy doing it.