Matchbox Twenty More Pop Than Crackle

By Greg Kot
Tribune rock critic
March 5, 2001

"Chick rock," sneered the young man as he waited for Matchbox Twenty to take the stage Friday at the sold-out Allstate Arena.

The macho guy said he was in attendance only because of his girlfriend's influence. At least she and a female companion "would have a good time," he said, "but I'd rather be at a Metallica concert."

His fate was accepted with a resigned smile, the kind of half-hearted grin that says he's powerless to counteract the charms of what has become one of the biggest selling rock bands in North America. His reaction is typical of many male rock fans, who like their guitars louder and rougher; critics, who like their music more challenging; and even the industry itself, which has yet to award the Orlando quintet a single Grammy Award. Nonetheless, Matchbox Twenty has become one of the most successful rock combos of the last five years, following its blockbuster 1997 debut record, "Yourself or Someone Like You," with the three-million-selling "Mad Season."

The group -- a purveyor of harmony-laden pop-rock tunes short on bluster and innovation -- is the latest in a long line of populist bands that get no respect from anyone except the people who buy their records. From '70s soft-rock avatars America to mid-'90s bar-band-writ-large Hootie and the Blowfish, these groups cheerfully serve music that is the aural equivalent of a lukewarm cup of cocoa on a chilly winter afternoon.

Matchbox is the latest tonic for mainstream listeners who can't stomach sugary teen pop or acidic rap-rock. Baritone singer Rob Thomas turns cuddliness into charisma, vulnerability into sexiness, and earnestness into one lighter-waving chorus after another.

"The only rule is that for the next two hours every person has to be nice to the person next to them," said Thomas, and for those who took a wrong turn on their way to the Slipknot concert, his songs provided a primer in male sensitivity. Varations on the words "scared" and "weak" turn up in a lot of his lyrics; he seduces with self-deprecation rather than bravado (the line "I feel ugly, but I know I still turn you on" from "Mad Season" got one of the night's biggest cheers), and even when a girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him in "Rest Stop," he meekly complies with her wishes, his mouth "too dry to rage."

If the Allstate audience was any indication, his most ardent fans are twentyish females who measure credibility and coolness by the catchiness of the tune -- and their enthusiasm for the pop pleasure principle was endearingly genuine. Before Matchbox even took the stage, these fans were dancing to disco tunes pumped through the public address system, Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" and Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" rocking their world every bit as effectively as the band later would. When Thomas sang, they shouted the words to even the non-hits along with him.

Thomas was a congenial rock 'n' roll Everyman, his voice mixed way out in front of the defanged guitars so that the lyrics could be heard, and his band measured itself against a modest ideal: faithfully replicating the recorded versions of commercial-radio staples such as "Crutch," "Bent," "3 a.m." and "Push." Solos were brief and usually synchronized with a barrage of lasers and strobes, designed to compensate for the band's lack of movement. Matchbox broke out of its lockstep precision only once, for a surprisingly loose, almost funky version of Charlie Rich's 1959 Memphis classic "Lonely Weekends."

The opening bands, Everclear and Lifehouse, had a similar appeal: well-oiled rock machines that entertained not with raucous rebellion, but with eager-to-please professionalism. The theme of Everclear's "Rock Star" set the tone. It's written from the perspective of someone who has no hope of finding himself exactly where Rob Thomas and Everclear's Art Alexakis stood on Friday: As entertainers who have made a bundle by emphasizing their ordinariness.

The Chicago Tribune