Matchbox 20 - Mad Season Matchbox 20
Mad Season

Rob Thomas has learned a thing or two about songwriting since Matchbox 20’s first disc hit a couple years ago. After scoring big by singing and writing Santana’s monster comeback single “Smooth” last year, Thomas is now prepared to take his Matchbox 20 back to the same stratosphere; the band’s sophomore disc is filled with the kind of sharp pop-rock writing that brought Santana back to the top of the charts. In fact, Mad Season’s first single, “Bent” could have come from the same writing session that produced “Smooth,” with its Spanish-influenced guitars and stop-start tempo breaks. It’s just one of more than a dozen winners on this fine effort.

The disc opens with “Angry,” a straight up rocker featuring Thomas belting at his most confident. That’s followed up by “Black & White People,” which departs from the Matchbox 20 crunch rock mode with a supporting punch of horns and background singers. In fact, the latter addition is one of the things that puts this album so far ahead of the band’s debut — Thomas has broadened both his songwriting and instrumental palette with a tasty sampling of orchestral background players and singers to expand the band’s sound.

And Thomas knows how to write a solid heartache lyric to boot. With “Crutch” he sings of avoiding being the “fallback” boyfriend, begging,

“I don’t want to be the crutch
one step away from down...
I think there’s still a piece of my heart on your face
it’s a shame to let it waste
how does it taste?”

But the album’s coup de grace is “Last Beautiful Girl,” a shimmering ode to the memory of a broken romance that slips into a perfect chorus of strength against heartache:

“it won’t be the first — heart that you break
it won’t be the last — beautiful girl
the one that you wrecked — won’t take you back
if you were the last beautiful girl in the world.”

“If You’re Gone” also taps into a bittersweet spot, with an easy strumming ‘70s rock vibe buoyed by a light orchestral background of strings and horns. Mad Season is nothing if not wide-ranging in terms of style and feel. Both the disc’s title track “Mad Season” and “The Burn” are easy, jaunty pieces, “Bed of Lies” opens like Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” and the album’s closer, “You Won’t Be Mine” listens like a Burt Bachrach soundtrack theme with a bittersweet piano lead and crying string section. It’s the tear-jerking icing on a cake of a record, and an instrumental version is also tucked away as a hidden track on the disc.

Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20 have really pulled out the stops on Mad Season; the result is one of the most varied and enjoyable albums of the summer.


Nina Gordon - Tonight and the Rest of My Life Nina Gordon
Tonight and the Rest of My Life
(Warner Bros.)

This is the best album that The Bangles and Madonna never got together to make.

It’s also a monster surprise. Who would have thought that the co-founder of Chicago’s punky girl popsters Veruca Salt had this much sweet girl-pop sugar hiding in her?

Gordon wrote and sang Veruca Salt’s best-known vinegary power chord anthems “Seether,” “Number One Blind,” “Volcano Girls” and “Shimmer Like A Girl,” all songs heavy on riffs and power. But for her first solo album, Gordon mostly dumps the heavy riffing in favor of layers and layers of silky gorgeous harmonies. The crowning example is the title track and first single, “Tonight And the Rest of My Life,” a slowly building gem of a ballad that could easily have served as a Madonna vehicle (and, in fact, the Material Girl could learn a thing or two about how to still make modern sweet pop by looking at Gordon’s dozen originals on this disc.)

There’s one crunching riff rocker here that could have been a Veruca Salt song — “Badway” — and it’s a welcome dose of high octane “Seether”-esque rock amid the sugary pop of the rest of the disc. And there’s a touch of crunch in “New Year’s Eve,” where she bemoans the fact that while normally she’d be dressed to the nines and “upstaging the host,” on this particular celebration, she’s unheeding of the party spirit and suffering from the melancholy of spending the holiday “alone” in the midst of a party while her boyfriend is elsewhere.

But the bulk of Gordon’s debut proves that the guitarist can write intricate beauties beyond the rough touch of three-chord riffs. She can sell a love song with the most potent doses of innocence and knowing winks. On “Now I Can Die” she sings seriously of finding the perfect love and at the same time pokes him in the ribs singing “he takes me everywhere he goes and he goes everywhere/he likes to try on all my clothes/but not my underwear.”

She also sings of the hard places of the soul, as in “Horses in the City” a song of being where you don’t belong. And “Hold On To Me” is one of the sweetest ballads since The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” Thanks, no doubt in some part to the help of veteran producer Bob Rock and Aimee Mann’s longtime collaborator Jon Brion, every song on Tonight and the Rest of My Life is a polished piece of pure rock candy sugar pop. “Number One Camera” treads that high-voiced Bangles/Go-Go’s chirpy pop rock beat, “Got Me Down,” offers a slow strumming, tear-jerking lovelorn song and “Too Slow To Ride” begs more heavenly melancholic tears and even adds a smidgeon of Geoge Harrison-like slide guitar.

It all closes with a cover of one of the most successful crossover chart singles ever, Skeeter Davis’ 1963 ballad “The End of the World,” which finds Gordon singing atop piano and strings in sweeping harmonies with herself for a stirring “didn’t The Carpenters sing that?” vibe. (No, they didn’t. I looked it up!)

I can’t say enough about this record. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t review another disc this year, I’d just listen to this one over and over and over. So before I start in again about how perfect this CD is...just go buy it.