Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rob Thomas : Cradlesong

Game face.
Four years ago, Rob Thomas released his first solo album, Something to Be, an album riddled with as much angst and identity confusion as any Matchbox Twenty album, but with an inch-thick coating of studio gloss. With a handful of really blazing tracks, Something to Be could safely be classified as a "strong" album and it's debut at no. 1 can certainly attest to that.

In present times though, Thomas's latest, Cradlesong, follows weakly in the vain of it's predecessor-- it's not a bad effort, it's just not up to par.

Welcome to middle age.

In the 90s, Thomas wrote about emotional and situational turbulence. He attacked every syllable with an exasperation-tinged anger. It sounded raw, even within the confines of 90's pop rock and any given song was more about his own catharsis than anything else.

And in 2009? Thomas is mellowing out and aiming right down the middle of the road. That's fine. Something to Be was a clear sign that Thomas was taking a more mature direction, but he did it well and he did it naturally. This time, Thomas' latest feels flat. Even his abilities as a songwriter are squandered on frequently vague, generic songs that don't hold much promise for an extended shelf life.

Take "Someday." With lines like "maybe someday we will live our lives out loud," the song is so vanilla, it's shameful. Or there's the robotically peppy "Real World '09." Considering Matchbox Twenty's "Real World" and how earnest it sounded, this new version shoots for the angst that Thomas used to channel with ease, but winds up sounding uncomfortably forced. "Welcome to the real world, nobody told you it was going to be hard, Hey ya, welcome to the real world, we barely started now we're falling apart." Barely started what? It would maybe be appropriate as an anthem for the class of '09 given the current economic situation, but Thomas is nearly 40. It's like a 50-year-old woman at a Jo Bros concert. And moreover, it comes off like some fusion of the theme song from Friends and "No Such Thing" by John Mayer.

That's not to say that every song is a dud, though. If more songs on the album had the mildly weird intrigue (thank you, toy piano) of "Her Diamonds," Thomas would be in better shape.

"Gasoline" and "Give Me the Meltdown" have some kick to them as well. "Gasoline"'s synth guitars have a smooth, vaguely 80s west coast sound that's actually really cool, while "Give Me the Meltdown" is radio-ready energy, complete with infectious hook.

Unfortunately it's hard to say if tracks like those are enough to compensate for something like "Fire on the Mountain," an attempt at being an epic (social? political?) statement amid angry guitars and Thomas' raw-throated vocals.

Really the underlying problem here is that everything is too intentional. The album covers a variety of sounds-- twang, dance beats, afro rhythms, but it doesn't feel as much like a natural evolution as it does a carefully planned project to appeal to those hanging up their Converse in favor of sensible shoes and doing the best they can to stay reasonably relevant.

If nothing else, Thomas's voice is still one of the most distinctive around and hopefully it's not that his style and talent are gone, but rather misplaced for the time being.

Start worrying when he releases his Perry Como tribute album.


Matt Kraatz said...

Fascinating review. An artist just can't escape his age.

Erin C. said...

sadly, no.