The Dave Matthews Band: Going Full Circle

BY JEFF LEVEN

It’s been hard to avoid lapsing into a love/hate relationship with the Dave Matthews Band over the course of its career. I still recall first hearing them at the very beginning of high school and having my ears perk up at the odd warble of Matthews’ voice, the hyper-active and yet gingerly light drumming of Carter Beauford, and the arresting jazz-folk interplay of bassist Stephan Lessard, violinst Boyd Tinsely and multi-instrumentalist horn player Leroi Moore. At the time, they were a wildly refreshing anomaly-the unusual blend of instrumentation, the dizzy, airy lilt of their songs, the fact that they were unassumingly but comfortably multiracial (still an upsettingly rare phenomenon amongst Top 40 outfits) and the tenacity of having built their own little empire by relentless touring, fan loyalty and grassroots marketing all made the DMB close to irresistible. As time went on, of course, the word of mouth spread further and by the time I got to college I found them pouring out of just about every window in every courtyard everywhere I went on campus. On a sunny day with a mild beer buzz, the playful hedonism of their lyrics and the sartorial waft of their songs often felt deeply appropriate, maybe even important. In some sense, Dave Matthews and company were on their way to being the Simon and Garfunkel of our generation – loose, self-fascinated, politely angsty-but-sweet music for the overindulged collegians of our society – some sort of undirected-but-cheerful voice for at least the undirected-but-cheerful segment of our generation that I found myself in. In a way, it was therefore always fairly easy to forgive them for their bratty dirty-white-baseball-cap crowds of trendily unruly teens that mobbed their shows, or the fact that in the grand scheme of things they basically just stood for sex, mild chemical abuse and quiet guitar-playing. The DMB was pretty, unusual music for pretty, conformist people, and after all what was really so wrong with that, at least on occasion?As time went on, however, and the canon of DMB songs was drilled deeper and deeper into our heads, I found myself experiencing Dave Matthews burnout. Some of it was sheer repetition, but some of it wasn’t. Further listening unraveled some of the magic. Seven minute songs based around one bloody chord, lyrics hovering around the same tired clichés, Boyd Tinsley using every solo as an attempt to saw his violin in half and Leroi Moore, always Leroi Moore flirting minute-by-minute with what, on repeated listening, proved to be a distressingly literal appropriation of Kenny G. The bastard. Albums came and albums went, and particularly on the live albums, the formula began to wear thin. Great musicians playing what was beginning to sound like so much elevator jazz. So, basically, I went cold turkey. No Dave shows, no new Dave albums, and only the very occasional spin through the old stuff. A much needed timeout.These days, though, things are coming full circle. Tired of the new-metal crap on the radio, sick of the boy-bands, and a bit self-conscious about the fact that most of the albums I listened to were recorded before I finished grade school, I suddenly got this mild sense that it was time to revisit Dave Matthews and see how it felt. Dave, for his part, read my mind and just released a new album, Some Devil. The catch? It’s a solo album. No Carter, no Stefan, no Tinsley, no Leroi (thank God), just Dave. And?While it certainly bears natural similarity to his work with the Band, Dave’s solo work is not quite the same well-known quantity. Indeed, on Some Devil, Dave proceeds to further indulge some of the pop and r&b sensibilities that he and Glen Ballard flirted with on Everyday. This time, however, it generally works better than it did on that effort, since he’s not dragging the group against their instincts – instead he’s designed a group to match some of his new ideas. The most stunning development on Some Devil is that the songs have a rock drive that’s certainly atypical of DMB albums. Rather than float cloudward, the songs here dig in and tug a little. One suspects that this is mostly the work of drummer Brady Blade, whose straight-ahead kick-and-snare style is a stark departure from Carter’s wild but occasionally overbusy array of brushes, taps, and runs through the cymbals. Also adding to the heavier vibe is Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, whose smoldering lead-work on songs like “Save Me” give the tracks an extra punch and rumble, and paired with Alex Veley’s organ on the joyous “Up and Away,” he carries Dave as close to New Orleans funk as he can possibly get. All this being said, none of the songs particularly rock out. Matthews’ instincts are still geared towards loose acoustic riffs and soft, atmospheric major key changes. On some songs like “An’ Another Thing,” the more spartan rhythmic work creates a particularly jazzy feel, although occasionally he makes the mistake of eschewing his more effective gravelly-low Billie Holiday delivery (as Santana pointed out after collaborating with him on The Supernatural) in favor of higher-pitched mewling. Tim Reynolds, as usual, is just about everywhere on guitar, but producer Stephen Harris often chooses to pair Dave with a subtle but rich string section on those songs that would otherwise be Dave and Tim duets (for those aching for more of that – a limited number of Some Devil CDs released this month have a five-song EP featuring live Dave and Tim cuts – modest but solid performances of a mix of songs from the DMB albums plus one from this one). In some respects these are all good things, although a comparison of the full-band version of “Gravedigger” with Dave’s rendition of the song all by his lonesome at the end of the album lays bare the production strategies and highlights how good Dave can sometimes sound with just his voice and a guitar and minimal orchestration. It’s a brave move insofar as it risks making many of the other tracks come off a bit stiffer and more plasticy than they otherwise would without him calling attention to all the studio tricks and occasionally over-thought arrangements. The shadow of the DMB’s looser and sometimes more intuitive treatment of Dave’s songs sometimes looms here, although the soul and blues flourishes are nonetheless a welcome new bedrock for Dave’s voice and songs. Overall, the album winds up being a reasonably successful experiment in a few vaguely new approaches for Matthews, although it is by no means a stark turn away from the DMB. One suspects it’s something of a pressure valve, and a chance to farm for fresh ideas to jump-start the next DMB album whenever they feel fit to make it. In and of itself, it’s certainly a decent listen with a few good songs to show for it, although nothing earth-shattering or profoundly memorable really results. At its worst it’s a Sting album – professional, easy on the ears, but a bit forced and underpowered, but often it’s got much more than that – some watertight songwriting, warm vocals, and the same deeply pleasant coziness that made the DMB standard issue for so many of us in years past.

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