By MARTY HUGHLEY - The Oregonian

The New York Times is hard to believe these days. Forget about the famous fabricator Jayson Blair. What about Kelefa Sanneh, the newspaper's newest rock critic?

A couple of weeks ago, Sanneh wrote a review of the rock band Matchbox Twenty. He called the music "boring," said the band "seems to work really hard at mediocrity" and called its set "a steady diet of bland ballads and worse-than-bland rock songs."

But that can't be right! Matchbox Twenty rocks. Did this guy even see the same show?!

Oh, right, of course not. He saw the May 16 show at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. I saw the Tuesday night show at the Rose Garden, with Maroon 5 and the surprisingly likable Sugar Ray as opening acts.

Maybe the band simply improved a lot over the two and a half weeks between those performances, but that's unlikely. Must just be a simple difference of opinion.

Sanneh's point of view isn't hard to see, certainly. Matchbox Twenty's appeal always has been decidedly mainstream, predicated on a conventional melodic-rock approach that's far from risky or venturesome. Unless you're captivated by a particular hook or lyrical sentiment they serve up, there's nothing about the band's music that will grab you and shake you up. It's easy, and not altogether wrong, to dismiss all its work as, in Sanneh's phrase, "willfully generic."

But the danger in that is that you'll stop paying attention, and you won't notice the strides the band has made.

In its previous Portland performance a couple of years ago, following an opening set by Everclear, Matchbox Twenty came across as too meticulously professional; not quite wimpy but bloodless. The band has toughened considerably since then.

On Tuesday night, "Feel," from the new album "More Than You Think You Are," was heavy, taut and snarling, reminiscent of something from Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy." Guitarists Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor, whose playing at times is stiff, found a groove to dig into. The band sounded cohesive in a way it never does on its early hits.

That tune came amid an impressive midshow stretch that included other signs of growth. "Hand Me Down," which recalled very early Elton John with its lovely chorus and pedal steel embellishments, and the ballad "If You're Gone," in a quiet version by just Cook and singer Rob Thomas, revealed a more compelling tenderness and musical control. "Bright Lights" built from a sweet, piano-based beginning into a big, expressive rocker, without relying on rote power-ballad bombast. It showed how much better these guys are at writing songs with distinctive sections, arranging them with an ear for dynamics, then letting them breathe and stretch onstage.

On the other hand, all these bright spots (and there were others as well) didn't keep such early hits as "Real World" and "3 a.m." from sounding as boring as ever. Even Paul Doucette's smart, agile drumming -- the band's secret weapon -- couldn't save those songs.

But even with such lulls, the show proved that the times (if not the Times) are good to Matchbox Twenty.

Marty Hughley: 503-221-8383;