Say this for Matchbox Twenty -- they've gotten better the longer they've stuck around. And that's not just their music, either: they've dropped the pretense of spelling their name as matchbox 20, they've gone away from cumbersome album titles, and they've embraced their status as MOR rockers. All of this is evident on Exile on Mainstream
, which is not only the first of their albums to bear a simple yet clever title, it's a collection of hits that traces their progression into a good, solid mainstream band and is also buttressed by an EP that finds them livelier than ever. Bolder, too, especially on the rockabilly of "I'll Believe You When" and the slow oldies beat of "Can't Let You Go," which are light and dexterous in a way they've never been before. These are balanced by a few cuts that don't stretch quite as far, but the propulsive pop "If I Fall," charging anthem "How Far We've Come," and earnest ballad "These Hard Times" are smooth, accomplished mainstream pop that are better constructed in every respect than their earliest hits. That much is evident by this EP's juxtaposition with the 11-track greatest-hits disc, which has all their big radio hits presented in chronological order. There are a few minor hits missing -- "Angry," "Last Beautiful Girl," "Downfall," none of which climbed that high on the charts -- so this has everything that a modern rock or adult contemporary radio listener would know, and the striking thing about listening to the disc is to hear how they abandoned the angst-ridden cartwheels that weighed down "Push" and built upon the snappy hooks of "Real World" and "3 AM," developing a sense of melodic craft that flourished in the smooth ballad "If You're Gone" and the arena rocker "Unwell." These were highlights on their respective albums, but when these moments are put together as a hits collection, it makes for a surprisingly entertaining batch of mainstream rock -- but the real story is the bonus disc, which suggests that after this collection is out of the way, Matchbox Twenty may have their first very good studio album on the way.