Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas got a big boost of credibility a couple of years ago when he sang on "Smooth," the best track from Santana's best-selling Supernatural album. Suddenly, this faceless pop band -- particularly its leader -- was thrust into the spotlight, and it got us thinking that maybe, just maybe, we were all wrong about the listlessness of its 1996 multiplatinum debut, Yourself or Someone Like You. Maybe smoothness was the point, and we were wrong to look for any deeper meaning. Mad Season, its latest album, comes with a larger sonic palette (horns, strings, and richer atmosphere are just some of the things Matchbox Twenty acquired since its last disc) and a new persona for Thomas. On Yourself or Someone Like You, he was the cautious young man dipping his foot into the (real) world; on Mad Season, he comes with bags of experience and stories -- and plenty of heartbreak and neuroses, as well. That doesn't fare quite so well (as we get to hear a self-pitying story about how he got dumped at a rest stop), but the band's newfound grip levels some of the bumps. Not so surprisingly, it's the midtempo songs -- the ones that slip easily into any contemporary radio format, like the hook-stuffed chart-toppers "Real World" and "Bent" -- that work the best. And despite an excess of one-word titles in the band's catalog ("Angry," "Crutch," "Push," "Leave," "Stop") learned from the Pearl Jam/Creed school of overemoting, brooding bands, Matchbox Twenty isn't nearly as affected as that. It's music to exercise, make love, and eat dinner by -- in the real world, of course.
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