Rob Thomas – Like Love and Life, a “Chip Tooth Smile” Never Fades
By Gabriel E. Camero
Four years after his last album,The Great Unknown, Rob Thomas has released Chip Tooth Smile. This fourth solo album is a soulful LP, both in lyrics and melody. Although Thomas admits that the album is his usual pop rock fare, it shows off the growth in his writing and editing.
Thomas changed producers for the first time here, changing from Matt Serletic to Butch Walker. Thomas and Walker used their collective wisdom to create various music styles that flow from one track to the next, then back to the top of Chip Tooth Smile. Thomas also debuted his talents for laying down vocal tracks.
Thomas uses a lot of reverb, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away,” in his life-affirming opening anthem “One Less Day (Dying Young).” The effect gives a sense of divine proclamation that every day is a gift and getting older should be celebrated. Kicking the album off with heavy reverb hints at Thomas and Walker’s use of editing effects and tricks throughout the album. The use of a slight reverb in the final song “Breathe Out” creates a feeling of space that accents the composition nicely, as well as helps the album flow back to “One Less Day (Dying Young).”
An ‘80s, INXS-style love song called “Timeless,” has fading vocals that bounce between the left and right channels, giving a cool stereo effect. The technique is a provocative way to keep the ear tuned to the song, and I love it! The short clips of “Hoo-hoo” after the guitar and drum break in “I Love It” show the skeleton of the song. “I Love It” builds like the transition to a final master, capturing the rush of making music and showing it off. There is a speed ramp effect at the end of the killer avant-garde guitar solo in “I Love It” that’s quite impressive.
The speed ramp effect is also cleverly used to create a drunk feeling in “The Worst in Me,” a song about a drunk person claiming to their tired angry lover that, “The worst in me brings out the best in you.” This track is also an example of the great instrumentation in Chip Tooth Smile. Thomas creates a drunken, country-cabana feel using thumb cymbals, egg shakers, and hand claps, but also doubles various instruments that are jerkily syncopated in a cross-rhythm pattern. “The Worst In Me” starts with a short bending and sliding riff on an acoustic guitar, later contrasted by an electric one providing a steely country sound in a more legato rhythm. Thomas also uses a synthesizer set to strings that is later doubled with a choir and orchestral section. The line they play runs through the song, but the instruments are interchangeable, creating a disoriented feeling. Disorientation is also made by the occasional speed ramp on drums and hand claps that strike simultaneously with an unaltered cymbal track. The song ends with a wonderful, trailing, drunken piano that is also speed-ramped, feeling sharp and bright, like a hangover.
While “The Worst in Me” creates a feeling or sensation, “The Man to Hold the Water” creates a picture. Starting with an exhale, Thomas brings in a bright, fingerpicking acoustic guitar before a high sustained violin pierces through the track. To me, the breath gives the sense of open space and the fingerpicking is a trickle of water, while the violin is the sunlight or the wind. Thomas’ voice then comes in with a melody that ebbs and flows, intertwining in a duet later on. “The Man to Hold the Water” continues with terraced crescendos as instruments come in with leitmotifs such as a rocking piano, a babbling bongo, or a sparkling triangle. I believe this culminates in the image of a trickle that leads to a stream, then a river that flows to the ocean. I find it fitting that Thomas’ most beautiful, and best stereo balanced track is about taking responsibility as a husband and a father.
Thomas is open about using his personal life in writing music. He hasn’t said much on the inspiration for “The Man to Hold the Water,” but according to the “Track by Track” YouTube video for his upcoming release, “Can’t Help Me Now,” Thomas recalls a time when his wife could not help him through a difficult and emotional time. While the original meaning of the song became buried during the writing process, what emerged was the internal struggle of a lover debating their departure from a relationship. When your partner is your best friend, how can you seek their advice if your relationship is the problem?
Though the lyrics and emotions skewed from his original concepts, Thomas is still able to convey the idea musically in “Can’t Help Me Now.” The bass drummer keeps a rhythm like a lonely palpitating heartbeat against cascading maracas and staggered pacing bongos as the pianist plays heavy handed chords and hand claps steady. The bassist plays thick sustained notes under the guitarist playing the same three descending scales over and over. The vocals and lyrical pattern simulate a circular argument interspersed with background shouts into the void. This all creates feelings of lonely contemplation and isolation everything falling apart. Suddenly the last chorus starts and with just Thomas and a harpsichord synthesizer, the remainder of the song is bright. Thomas creates a cool, unfinished, and infinitely hopeful feeling by cutting on a sustained chord. Like “The Worst in Me,” the panned tracks occupy their own space in stereo, giving great balance and definition to the song
“Can’t Help Me Now,” like many of the songs on Chip Tooth Smile, has four unison vocal parts. “Tomorrow,” another unison song, resonates lyrically more so than musically. With lines such as, “We just keep on fighting till the bell rings and we’re out,” and, “We are lost and then we come back again.” The song is about a relationship in a rough patch; one of them is leaving tomorrow, maybe for good. With a chorus that includes the lyrics “We are so (expletive)-ed up,” it’s hard not to draw a parallel to the division within the United States and around the world, or even our own personal hardships.
All the songs on Chip Tooth Smile are about universal, relatable moments and sensations in life. Thomas does a remarkable job allowing us to immerse ourselves in the experience. Like the drunken, shuffling chorus in “The Worst in Me;” the showboat masses in “I Love It;” the blissfully arrogant, hopeless romantic in “Timeless;” the pained and lonely lover in “Can’t Help Me Now;” or the chanting crowds in “One Less Day (Dying Young),” we all relive those moments, feel those emotions, and sing along. In doing so, an album such as Chip Tooth Smile can unite listeners – bring healing, closure and breathe new life into the steadfast Rob Thomas fans and newcomers alike.