A popular notion in the music business is that the "third album defines the artist", which means that listeners can reliably figure out what an artist is all about after three albums. It's a theory rooted in the artist's establishment and comfort level. An artist catches our attention with a debut, and then becomes established with a second release — now that they have nothing to prove, what are they going to do for a third album?
In the case of Smalltown Poets, the answer would seem to be "more of the same." If you've heard either of the first two albums by the Poets, you have a very good idea of what to expect with Third Verse and whether or not you would like it. Sounding as much like the Gin Blossoms as they ever have, the Poets avoid charting new territory and continue with their comfortable brand of Southern jangle rock/pop. This is the first album from the band without a keyboard player, making it their most guitar-driven album to date, and the result is a double-edged sword. Sometimes the album has a great raw guitar rock feel to it, especially apparent in the driving rock of "100 Billion Watts." On the other hand, it makes some of their songs sound too much alike and similar to past material. The lead single "Every Reason" sounds a little too much like something from their past albums.
If anything, I'd say the Poets have become a little less adventurous with every album. Their debut stands out in my mind as the collection with the most interesting songs and creative use of instruments. Third Verse is mostly a lot of catchy melodies set to standard rock guitar strumming. There's not a lot of musical creativity this time around, but it has a good overall rock feel. Right now, the best thing going for the Smalltown Poets is lead singer Michael Johnston's strong and soaring tenor — his vocals never strain on the high notes, and he gets my vote as one of the best Christian rock vocalists in the business. Two of the best moments on Third Verse are the two cover tunes on the album. Their take on the 77's song, "The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes, and the Pride of Life," has a great classic sound to it, reminiscent of The Byrds. And because the song matches their style perfectly, Smalltown Poets makes "Beautiful Scandalous Night" their own (much to the chagrin of Choir fans everywhere). The songwriting and musicianship on Third Verse is still above your average Christian rock/pop, filled with lots of feel-good rock, and fans of the band should be pleased with the results. But it's unlikely that the Smalltown Poets will win any new fans with this album. In fact, they're beginning to show a need for some significant growth in their music.