…Something To Be
ob Thomas really, really wants to be a soul singer, if his debut solo effort …Something To Be is any indication. Actually, the loads of fake horns and some Greater Anointing choir on backing vox (on three songs) means he really wants to be a southern soul singer. Unfortunately for Rob, he’s no patch on Daryl Hall, let alone Wilson Pickett, or Al Green. His voice isn’t without its merits; it’s become very recognizable thanks to the ubiquity of his regular gig as lead singer of Matchbox 20, and with time, Rob’s singing has become increasingly expressive. Perhaps in 15-20 years he could make a pretty passable blues(y) album, but not now. And not …Something To Be.
This is by no means a bad album, but to my ears, it’s worse; it’s mediocre. A large part of the problem is that Rob’s a fairly generic songwriter. [If his compositions have lots of him in them, he’s one of the most processed-cheese-and-Wonder-bread guys around.] It’s amazing that he gets to write with and for artists such as Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana and Mick Jagger—these guys are no slouches when it comes to picking up a pen. Maybe it’s just that Rob’s workmanlike enough that they know they’ll get a “quality” product, without the taint of, say, a Diane Warren. Where Warren’s hopelessly uncool, Rob seems to have a certain amount of cachet about him. [Think of Rob’s rock rep with M20, along with the Grammyliciousness of “Smooth,” along with its 12 weeks at number one, and you’re getting somewhere.] But from someone who writes such hopelessly clichéd lines as “and I couldn’t tell you but I’m telling you now” (from the ultra-bland “Ever the Same”), it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
A better producer, someone who could give these songs a little “pop,” would’ve served …Something To Be much better. However, Rob decided to go with his old standard, M20 producer Matt Serletic, who tends to flatten everything out, making it sound mostly samey. For example, Serletic samples a bit of Bessie Jones’ “O Death” at the front of “I Am An Illusion,” presumably intending to give the song a Moby effect. But after looping a few bars, he launches Rob into the song proper, and ditches the sample completely. What was its point, then? All it served to do was make me want to hear “O Death,” not the mess “Illusion” degenerates into (topping layer upon layer with unsuitably noisy guitar solos and more horns—at least on this track, it’s actually a trumpet and sax, as opposed to the keyboards credited across the album). “When the Heartache Ends” is indistinguishable from an M20 single, as are the title track, “Fallin’ To Pieces,” and “My, My, My,” which is most definitely not a Johnny Gill cover. [Let’s not think about what that might sound like.]
It’s not all dross: “This Is How A Heart Breaks” opens the proceedings with a tidy punch, while lead single “Lonely No More” is, as some have already pointed out, reminiscent of the past half-decade of work by the Latino crossover contingent (i.e. Ricky and Enrique). “Streetcorner Symphony” shoots for a modern-day Brill building vibe, and largely succeeds; it’s also the album’s sole track that sounds liberally doused with soul. More of this and less of the same old Matchbox 20-isms Rob and Serletic insist upon indulging in would’ve made this an album with, at least, potential. Lest we forget, Darius Rucker—c’mon, you remember Hootie and the Blowfish, right?—released his own solo album a few years back. It was actually pretty good, roughly a nu-soul record; it even featured a lovely duet with Jill Scott. And it sold nothing. Sadly, Rucker stretched too far for fans of Hootie to have a hit. Thomas hasn’t stretched that far, which means he’ll likely sell plenty. But those sales come with an artistic price, one Thomas appears all too happy to pay.