I have this running debate amongst friends -- well, fellow reviewers, mostly -- about what signifies a "great" CD. It's a kinda/sorta chicken-versus-the-egg argument about whether or not a released CD gets defined as "great" right out of the box OR if it has to have legs, to prove itself over time. Does it strike the reviewer immediately as a 'home run' or does it need time for songs to find themselves or, perhaps, find greater meaning amongst everything else in the performer's library? I typically come down on the side of the latter as opposed to the former, and in the case of Rob Thomas's CRADLESONG, I feel pretty comfortable in my opinion mostly because I feel that most of the songs -- certainly not all of them -- signal an evolution in sound from where he first hit the marketplace as the lead singer in Matchbox Twenty (or "20", as some prefer) to where he's headed.
Much like, say, Phil Collins did back in the 80's when he was lead for Genesis but had a terrific solo career, Thomas seeks to distinguish himself a bit on this CD ... to create a sound or a combination of sounds that differentiate who he is today from the performer he was yesterday. Again, this isn't to say that there are no similarities; rather, he brings the good stuff that he learned along the way but continues to try to push himself creatively in new, different directions, hopefully bringing his audience along with him on this musical journey. (I think Rolling Stones made some similar observations relating to Phil Collins, so don't cry foul. I'm just agreeing with the 'workmanship' concept, not the entire Stones' review.)
CRADLESONG, overall, is a next step in defining a musician who may never be entirely comfortable where he is ... that reality will help him continue to go where he hasn't been before, and that may be welcome creative diversions. We'll see where it all goes.
Her Diamonds (5 out of 5) - a great backbeat along with a terrific vocal performance about one man and one woman dealing with grief in the shape of tears falling like diamonds. One to load on the iPod and keep there. A pop confection!
Gasoline (2.5 out of 5) - a treacherous pop song with a weird, synthesizer non-traditional mainline -- but a terrific chorus -- that really goes nowhere, at least not for me. Again, Thomas taps the vein of heavy relationships -- "You can never win, you can never lose ... I try so hard to give you what you need, and it burned like gasoline ..." -- and their ups-and-downs (from one perspective), but, in the end, the song feels empty -- much like the relationship of the song sounds.
Give Me the Meltdown (5 out of 5) -- a much better or more inspired take on the themes of the last song (Gasoline) that opens with a weird bassline and ticking drumsticks gives way to another great vocal performance by Thomas and a chorus. He reminds one how good it can feel taking care of a loved one experiencing an emotional low. "You're so perfect you never really need nobody ..." Plus, he makes great use of the word 'monkey,' which is always a plus, speaking solely as one confident male heterosexual to another.
Someday (5 out of 5) -- Is anyone working in music today getting near as much greatness out of backing vocals? My point has always been that great vocals -- especially the back-up singing -- has the power to elevate what, in other hands, could end up being an average track, but the chorus here -- that of hopefulness, of affirmation, of a great future with unexpected potential -- elevates "Someday" to from your run-of-the-mill Top 40 inspirational track to near-anthem status. Thomas is showing chops as a lasting musical genius by showing the smarts to surround himself with great talent.
Mockingbird (3 out of 5) -- Another relationship finds itself at a crossroad, and Thomas points out that maybe there is little to be learned in trying to figure out how the lovers got there. Maybe "we ain't meant for this love." Sometimes, it's that simple. Not a bad song, just nothing memorable to me.
RealWorld '09 (3.5 out of 5) -- A great sound about waking up and realizing that you're in the real world. Upbeat, driving rhythms from the beginning until the end -- with a melodic bridge. Interesting, nothing more, nothing less. It's the kind of song that turns up on adult contemporary radio every other week, though, so I'm not sure that there's much to distinguish itself from the competition except the vocals.
Fire on the Mountain (5 out of 5) -- Here's the track to crank the volume up to 11 on, folks. It's the kind of song that begins softly but, 10 seconds in, you know it ain't gonna end that way. Tribal drums provide the backbeat to this rock'n'roll wistful musing of 'things to come.' Thomas's vocals here remind me more than just a bit of U2's Bono. "Where do you turn when the world moves on?" Despite whatever his preferences may be, I personally think that this is the kind of music that Thomas -- and all of primal rock'n'roll -- does best.
Hard on You (2 out of 5) -- I'm the first person to advocate a "keep it simple" approach to most music I listen to and/or review. The risk with "keeping it simple" is that a song may end up lost in between whatever the musician intended and serving largely as "filler" on an otherwise meaningful album. Sorry, folks, but this one's a near dud. Thematically, it fits with Thomas's message here -- life is hard, please forgive me, etc. -- but this one just falls flat (to me) compared to anything else here.
Still Ain't Over You (4.5 out of 5) -- Another rocking reflection on the tribulations of a failing romance. "I hold steady while you keep shakin' it loose ..." Great driving rhythm keeps this one rockin' all the way 'til the end.
Natural (4 out of 5) -- Hip, subversive, and sexy. Nothing more needs to be said. "Are we filling spaces 'til we find ourselves again ... like it's only natural?"
Snowblind (3.5 out of 5) -- Again, this kind of stuff pops up every other week on adult contemporary. Nothing necessarily new or memorable, but a competent reflective track.
Wonderful (3.5 out of 5) -- Big horns, big sound, somewhat reminescent of the work Phil Collins was doing solo in the late 80's.
Cradlesong (5 out ot 5) -- The album's title song is perfectly matched, musically and lyrically. It harkens back to the simpler feelings and simpler emotions of youth and inexperience perhaps being the better place to spend one's life, hence the 'cradlesong.' It's about when you feel safest and the most complete. A beautiful tune that deserves to be discovered.
Getting Late (3 out of 5) -- A pleasant enough country'n'blues riff -- surprise, surprise! -- waxing melodically on the dangers of missing life's most important moments if you spend too much time watching it too closely. "While you're watching over the moments that make up your life, it's getting late."
All in all, a great outing for a tremendously talented artist. Let's see where he goes next.
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