New album, new sound for matchbox twenty: Band's evolution has some tunes sounding more like Elton John than Creed

By Lynn Saxberg, The Ottawa Citizen

To riff on the title of their latest disc, matchbox twenty may be more than you think they are. Most people probably think of the popular American rock band (formerly known as Matchbox 20) as a bunch of guys backing Rob Thomas, the greasy-haired, double-earringed singer who's married to a model and struck Grammy paydirt on a collaboration with Carlos Santana.

Everyone knows that song -- an insanely catchy tune called Smooth -- and chances are they've heard lots of M-20 songs on the radio, thereby associating the band with big guitars, earnest vocals and slick rock hits.

But their recent disc, More Than You Think You Are, finds the band not only exploring some new directions but also trying to recapture what worked best for them on their 1997 multimillion-selling debut album, Yourself and Someone Like You.

At the top of the list is the fact that they were determined to focus on the band as a unit, guitarist Kyle Cook says during a phone interview from a tour stop in Halifax. What made Yourself work was its live feel, a vibe the band virtually lost sight of in the lavish production of their second disc, Mad Season.

"We had come off a successful record and we had a lot of money to make a big-budget record if we wanted to, so we did," Cook recalls. "And then we spent tons of time on frivolous little parts that at the end were inconsequential. We wanted to not make that record again this time."

Heading for the Catskills, the band sequestered itself in Bearsville Studios in upstate New York. Part of the attraction was the barn-like room for recording.

"Because we were all together in the room, you could see the stick hit the drum, the hand about to strum the guitar. I think something happens when you try to build songs that way," Cook says.

One song that came together in the studio was Soul. No wonder it sounds like a free-spirited jam: It came out of a free-spirited jam in the studio led by a guitar line that Cook had been tinkering with. The input earned him one of his first songwriting credits.

He hopes it leads to more.

"I love playing guitar, but it is not my only aspiration in life," he says. "I definitely want to branch out a little more as a songwriter and producer."

Meanwhile, Thomas has been branching out in his own way, writing more music on piano instead of guitar. Some of the results, including the new single, Bright Lights, make matchbox twenty sound more like Elton John instead of Creed.

So are they referring to their own musical evolution in the album title?

Not exactly.

It's more of a friendly reminder to people not to underestimate themselves.

"It's funny to see it get interpreted really philosophically in different ways," laughs Cook. In fact, he says the line came out of a casual comment that someone misheard. It stuck.

"Not only is it cool, but it sounds like an extension of the first record. What it means to us now is, the way that the first one -- Yourself and Someone Like You -- said that we're all connected and bonded, is that most people are more than they think they are. They have more substance."