Just as parents talk about the "terrible twos," folks in the record business like to go on about the horrors of "the second album."
Any time a band makes a big splash with its debut, it seems as if everyone in the industry expects the follow-up album to fall victim to "sophomore slump."
It's almost as if the only suspense is over just how badly the band will stumble.
All of which leaves me wondering whether Matchbox Twenty didn't skip straight to album No. 3. Because not only does "Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty" (LavaAtlantic 83302, arriving in stores today) not fall victim to the usual second-album failings, it actually sounds better than "Yourself or Someone Like You," the band's 1996 debut.
That improvement is all the more impressive because Matchbox Twenty has changed its basic approach not a whit. The grainy warmth of Rob Thomas' careworn baritone is still the center of the band's sound, and the clean, carefully crafted arrangements frame the alluring minor-key melodies as perfectly as they did last time around.
Except that this time around, Matchbox Twenty sounds like a band, not just a singer with some session men.
There's a sense of urgency and vitality to the music, as if the band went into the studio with the express intention of kicking some tail.
Not that they cranked the amps to 11 and went after the mosh-pit kids -- this is Matchbox Twenty, after all, not Metallica. Still, there's a definite edge to the sly, funky swagger of "Mad Season," and real might behind the breathless stomp of "Black & White People."
But as much as the band might get its ya-yas out in the studio, the physicality of the playing never undercuts the accessibility of the tunes. Instead, that hint of aggression seems to add to music's appeal. It's as if the band were determined to put some teeth in these songs, but made sure those choppers were always white and shining for the choruses.
Weirdly enough, the band's new-found might ends up adding more to the pretty, pop-oriented numbers than to the rockers.
Sure, it's fun to hear the band put the pedal to the metal in "Crutch," "Stop" and "Bent," where the guitars can wail freely over the surging pulse of the rhythm section.
But it's even more impressive to hear the group apply that musical muscle to the string-padded settings of "Rest Stop" and "You Won't Be Mine," where the contrast between pop sweetness and rock bite is most telling.
Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty