Rob Thomas: adept craftsman or musical agent of Satan? Sometimes it's hard to tell. With Thomas' reedy whine at center stage, matchbox twenty embodied rock's drift into joyless, store-brand monotony by the late '90s. Every so often, though, Thomas thinks outside the matchbox and makes up for his transgressions. ''Smooth,'' his 1999 hot-tamale matchup with Santana, was one such moment of revelation, and ''Lonely No More,'' the irresistible initial single from Thomas' wide-ranging first solo outing, Something to Be, is another. Encircled by DJ beats, warp-speed bass lines, and a ''whoa-oh!'' refrain, Thomas sounds less like his usual tortured self and more like a boy-band veteran who still knows a thing or two about a grabby hook. Who knew he could be so pop, so rhythmic, so tolerable?
Something to Be doesn't always snap and crackle the way that single does, but it's not for lack of trying. Matchbox often strove to prove they had more to offer, but everything even their cracks at gospel and country sounded pretty identical. On his own, Thomas works hard to avoid that trap. (He's become his generation's Phil Collins an industry-savvy schmoozer eager to collaborate with others and lighten way up.) Who would have thought he could concoct a taut, driven track like ''This Is How a Heart Breaks'' or graceful, near-Byrdsian gems like ''When the Heartache Ends'' and ''Problem Girl''? If matchbox twenty make the musical equivalent of supersize blockbuster movies, the best parts of Something to Be are akin to a more intimate indie film. Even Thomas' lyrics typically angsty and needy and delivered, as usual, with a suggestion of deep-seated resentment are less intrusive: What a difference better accompaniment makes.
Alas, the nuance that infuses a good chunk of Something to Be eventually gives way to the hammy, overemotive gestures we've come to expect from Thomas. The strained funk of ''I Am an Illusion'' is painful, as is the football-chant bombast of the look-how-dark-I-can-be title song (in which he lacerates himself for appearing ''a little too boy next door'' and feeling he should ''try to find a downtown whore''). The nadir is ''Streetcorner Symphony,'' an embarrassing foray into '70s FM rock in which he slurps about going ''down to the corner'' with ''my sisters and my brothers of every different color.'' The song feels like the world's greatest Black Crowes parody until you realize Thomas is completely serious. ''Sometimes I'm people I never hoped that I would be,'' he sings in ''I Am an Illusion.'' Luckily, Thomas also manages, just enough, to be someone a pure-pop fan always hoped he would be, too.