After a start playing fairly ordinary pop-punk on their debut and an encouraging sense of experimentation on its follow-up, Oakland quartet the Matches don't seem to know exactly what they're doing on their third album. On the one hand, many songs draw inspiration not only from old-fashioned slickly commercial AOR hard rock (the fist-pumping roots of "Their City" and "We Are One" lead back to Bon Jovi) but also from current mainstream Top 40 paradigms. No kidding: the bouncy singsong pop of first single "Wake the Sun" could, with only the barest minimum of alteration in production style and arrangement, potentially be a chart-topping single for someone like Natasha Bedingfield or Jordin Sparks. Elsewhere, anthemic opener "AM Tilts," "Point Me Toward the Morning," and "Future Tense" are by the numbers commercial alt-rock sure to appeal to the style's core demographic. But as if in direct opposition to the rest of the album's grab for the brass ring, big chunks of A Band in Hope are almost shockingly unexpected, verging at times on just plain weird. The ballad "Darkness Rising," with its arrangement of solo grand piano and ornate, overdubbed close harmonies exploding into a bizarre martial kick-step climax, sounds like bandleader Shawn Harris has been listening to quite a bit of Queen and/or Andrew Lloyd Webber. Either way, it's kinda freaky, as are the woozy alt-folk psychedelia and deliberately bizarre, hiccuppy vocal affectations of "To Build a Mountain" and the truncated, inconclusive minute-long closer, "Proctor Drive." In this context, the two-minute pop-punk throwaway "Yankee in a Chip Shop," a gleeful Oakland/London culture clash set to the album's simplest and punkiest tune, stands out, in the likely unintentional sense that it's the only song on the album where the Matches don't sound like they're trying way too hard.
A Band in Hope Review
by Stewart Mason