Shirley Halperin
July 12, 2007 AT 11:38 PM EDT

I’m a sucker for a good pop hit, no matter how quaint, formulaic or nonsensical (I’m lookin’ at you, Rihanna). But there’s something even more alluring about a song with substance, which is kind of how I’ve always viewed Rob Thomas as a songwriter and Matchbox Twenty as a band. Back in the late ’90s and early part of this decade, their music was everywhere: the supermarket, the drug store, elevators, on the line while holding for the credit card company and, of course, all over the radio. But one place you’d never hear a Matchbox tune? A TV ad. Sure, “Smooth,” Rob’s Grammy-winning duet with Santana, would’ve been great for selling Schicks, but he and the band have always staunchly opposed licensing their songs for products — a tough stance in today’s strained music business, where making money through traditional outlets is tougher than ever.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with Thomas who, any journalist will tell you, is  about the most charming, outgoing and funny guy to have sold 28 million albums (his 2005 solo disc included). And so when I heard that there was new Matchbox music in the works, I jumped at the chance to hear it for myself and headed “over the hill,” as we LA folk like to say, to NRG Studios in North Hollywood.

There, I found Thomas bemoaning his broken Guitar Hero video game and debating Paris Hilton’s recent appearance on Larry King Live.And, after a month of recording on the opposite coast from where helives, he was missing his wife and dogs terribly. But Thomas’ mood wasquickly lifted once producer Steve Lilywhite (U2, Dave Matthews Band)loaded up six freshly-mixed songs into the console. Starting off with“How Far We’ve Come,” a rousing, pop-rock romp with a distinct “Born toRun” vibe, then segueing into the old soul feel of “Can’t Let You Go”and the Pretenders-inspired “I’ll Believe You When…,” it wasimmediately apparent that this was a different Matchbox 20 than the onewe’ve come to know.

There’s good reason for it, too. For one thing, this is the firsttime Thomas and the band have worked with someone other than their longtimeproducer Matt Serletic, and the change has opened their range.At the same time, Lilywhite honed in on a sound that’s current, yeteasily digestible to an adult audience. And, dare I say, very rock.Also, Paul Doucette, who had been the band’s drummer, switched toguitar (replacing Adam Gaynor, who left a couple years back), andfinally, the six new songs were written by the band as a whole, asopposed to Thomas alone. All this has resulted in some prettysurprising sounds, which the public will get to hear come October 2,when Matchbox release their greatest hits package, Exile on Mainstream.

So do we have to label the return of Matchbox Twenty as part of someimpending (or ever constant) ’90s revival, as my good friend and Huffington Post contributor Paul Bonanos noted in his enlightening take on “The Speed of Retro”? Or, I wondered after the playback, as I watched Thomasstruggle to keep up with Jane’s Addiction’s “Stop” on hisjust-delivered, brand-spanking new copy of Guitar Hero (see pic above), can we simply acknowledge quality, middle of the road music for whatit is? Considering how fresh and un-dated Matchbox’s new music sounds, I’m hoping for the latter. What say you, PopWatchers?

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