Matchbox Twenty

Some bands rack up mega-platinum popularity through innovation. Matchbox Twenty ain't one of them.

Instead, the group has notched huge success through its ability to forge disparate rock styles into CDs that could easily pass for an hour's worth of programming on your local corporate rock station. True to form, "More Than You Think You Are," the band's third full-length outing, sounds suspiciously as if it was assembled in light of plentiful polling data.

For Matchbox Twenty, though, market-tested anonymity is a supreme aesthetic value. Listeners should therefore feel free to judge this album by its cover, which depicts the Matchbox men hiding behind their hands. Message? These guys are heirs to the throne abdicated long ago by the similarly faceless likes of Journey, REO Speedwagon and, oh yes, the mighty Loverboy.

Only minus the corny/catchy tunes that -- admit it -- keep you from touching that dial whenever "Working for the Weekend" comes on.

But Lord knows they try.

"Bright Lights" is a watery Elton John knockoff, a maudlin, piano-powered ballad gussied up with crunching guitars and hard-rock lead lines. "All I Need" finds the band aping R.E.M.-style jangle pop but making you nostalgic for the Gin Blossoms instead. And while "Disease," which ringleader Rob Thomas co-wrote with a slumming Mick Jagger, isn't exactly a carbon copy of "Smooth" (Thomas's smash collaboration with Carlos Santana), its insistent, vaguely Latin guitar riff tugs on your memory like an annoying child.

This "More," in other words, is definitely less.

-- Shannon Zimmerman


System of a DownNot all heavy-metal music is mindless. It can just seem that way. At the top of the list of current bands begging to differ with that assessment is System of a Down, a Los Angeles quartet that hit it big three years ago with its ferocious self-titled debut and even bigger last year with "Toxicity," a cerebral and equally boisterous follow-up. Rocking harder and smarter than similar-minded groups like Rage Against the Machine, SOAD couples sonic bursts with thoughtful, often angry lyrics fueled by left-wing politics that tackle everything from capitalist excess and war crimes to prison reform and drug addiction.

There is more of the same on the band's new CD, "Steal This Album" -- a pulled-from-the-vaults collection of 16 unreleased songs recorded between 1995 and 2001. The name choice, a nod to Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book," is an odd one, given that political rappers the Coup have already claimed it. With unusual melodies and chord changes that undermine hard-rock conventions, the songs have an almost playful smartness about them. The Queen-like opener, "Chic 'N' Stu," sounds pulled from a heavy-metal operetta, while "[Bleep] the System" is notable for restoring admirable venom to an overused expletive. There's an absurd quality to songs like "Pictures" and "I-E-A-I-A-I-O," with their stream-of-consciousness lyrics speed-dialed over monstrous beats. But when the band picks its political targets, as on "A.D.D. (American Dream Denial)" and "Boom!," the rage is palpable and a sense of purpose is revealed. Head-banging barrages are rarely both so informative and so entertaining.

-- Joe Heim


Susan Tedeschi

Singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi has never concealed her admiration for Bonnie Raitt. She sometimes closes concerts with a version of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" that wistfully echoes Raitt's classic interpretation of the ballad. But Raitt's influence is particularly evident on Tedeschi's new album, "Wait for Me," her first in four years and her best yet.

While Tedeschi's soulful voice and incisive guitar work prompt plenty of favorable comparisons, what really stands out here is Tedeschi's unforced, Raitt-like assimilation of folk, rock, pop, gospel and soul traditions. She's still playing the kind of club circuit blues that first brought her recognition, but more than ever, Tedeschi is revealing other interests and influences, something she accomplishes without ever reaching beyond her grasp.

That's no slight trick when you consider that some of the soul ballads on "Wait for Me" sound as if they were written with Etta James in mind. "Alone," the album's opening track, builds to a time-honored, sorrow-drenched peak. Yet far from sounding out of her element, Tedeschi delivers one of her finest vocal performances, skillfully ratcheting up the tension until she isn't singing so much as testifying. When the mood shifts to spiritual reflection on "In the Garden," her voice sounds altogether different, plaintive and haunting.

With the help of slide guitarist Derek Trucks, whom she recently married, Tedeschi revels in some raunchy blues, too. She also collaborates with Chuck Berry keyboardist Johnnie Johnson on the romping boogie "I Fell in Love" and salutes recent tour partner Bob Dylan with a tender, semi-acoustic version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." About the only thing missing on "Wait for Me" is a significant lull.

-- Mike JoyceANGLICANA

Eliza CarthyIn the liner notes to "Anglicana," Eliza Carthy's fifth solo release, the singer mentions that she once pledged never to have her father play on one of her records. Carthy wanted to succeed on her own terms, untainted by the presence of Martin Carthy, one of the great guitar legends of British folk music.

Now that she is older, Eliza Carthy has moved away from tentative electronica experiments and back to her traditional folk roots, so it only makes sense that Martin should finally make an appearance on one of her albums -- in this case on "Dr. McMBE," a 60th-birthday tribute to him and the sole track written entirely by her. But the biggest tribute Carthy pays her father with "Anglicana" is her enthusiasm for and exclusive embrace of traditional folk.

Having matured as an expressive vocalist and violin player, Carthy impressively tackles a handful of traditional British folk melodies, rearranging them to suit her classy group of chamber players. Thus, "Just as the Tide Was Flowing" virtually hovers over the simple foundation of melodeon and strings, while the live "In London So Fair" benefits from her spare vocals and piano treatment.

The forceful arrangement given "Pretty Ploughboy" reveals that Carthy's adventurous streak remains intact, but by and large "Anglicana" shows her renewed dedication to songs and melodies drawn from dusty old songbooks, campfire singalongs and even a few tips from dear old Dad.

-- Joshua Klein