Matchbox 20: “Exile on Mainstream”

Nobody ever won any indie cred or hipster points for liking– or even talking about— Matchbox 20, but say this about them: They know how to write a monster hook with enough heft to get a whole arena to sing along, and, in the wake of Gwen Stefani selling out to the man, they just might be the best mainstream singles band around. Which is why Exile on Mainstream is such a pefect album for them– the bulk of the record is comprised of eleven of their biggest blockbuster hits, which means that it allows you to enjoy the band’s greatest strengths– their flare for big, catchy hooks– without calling much attention to the greatest weakness, which is the homogenous studio sheen that makes their lesser material feel rather bland and tuneless. After all, this is a band that’s always thrived on the radio, not on albums– so what better way to enjoy them than in a collection that unites the post-alternative mainstream rock of “Mad Season” and “3 AM” with fluid ballads like “If You’re Gone” and arena-read sing-alongs like “Unwell” and “Bright Lights”?
The fact that the band’s singles have finally been rounded up and collected together on a single disc is in itself reason to recommend Exile on Mainstream, but that’s not even the most exciting part of the collection. Preceding the singles is a six-song EP of all new material, and, despite its brevity, it’s easily the best, most assured and enjoyable batch of material the band has ever released at one time. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the new songs boast a lighter touch, a greater sense of studio craft, and more stylistic diversity than the band has ever shown before, without sacrificing their big pop hooks. The set begins with the charging rocker “How Far We’ve Come”– already one of their best and most exhilarating radio singles– and moves into the gentle, easy-going rockabily of “I’ll Believe You When,” then hits on three tracks that don’t deviate much from the Matchbox 20 formula but do it as well as it’s ever done before (“If I Fall” is one of their most convincing rockers, while “All Your Reasons” is an especially tender ballad) and ends with the playful whimsy of “Can’t Let You Go.” It’s an exciting set that finds the much-maligned band embracing their strengths, expanding their palette, and playing with more assurance and adventure than ever. It’s enough to make the prospect of a new Matchbox 20 album– not just a new Matchbox 20 single— genuinely exciting.

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