In Brief: Their best effort since Crash. Seriously. The Dave Matthews Band is BACK.
Death has a funny effect on the relationship between a musician and their fans. Perhaps it’s just due to the finality of it, and the knowledge that we’ll get nothing more from an artist after they die. Or perhaps there’s a part of us that feels bad for only paying attention to someone’s music on the surface, and is drawn to listen to it more deeply after their passing. Whatever the case, when a famous musician (or at least a founding member of a reasonably well-known band) passes away, one can expect at least a moderate spike in their album sales, perhaps even an overdue award nomination (or several) the following year. Show of hands: How many huge fans of Michael Jackson are reading this review? OK, now put your hands down if you were only kinda sorta into his music a month ago. (I can’t see you, so I can’t count you, but if you just put your hand down, then I rest my case. And there’s nothing wrong with that – I’m just saying that death raises awareness.)
Now it would be silly to compare the death of Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Leroi Moore to that of Jackson. Jackson was famous the world over despite not really having put anything new out since about 2001. When you’re that big, people just plain don’t forget who you are. Moore, on the other hand, was probably only a name that you knew if you were a slightly more-than-casual fan of the Dave Matthews Band (if not, then you’ve probably only heard of Matthews). And his band was probably on the wane, popularity-wise, for a good chunk of the current decade. Four years of no new material after an album that was panned by many of your hardcore fans (2005’s abysmal Stand Up) will do that to you. Sure, there were the scattered live offerings, but those only ever really got noticed by the faithful – they didn’t generate new fans or put the band back on the radio or anything like that. So I’d say the band probably wasn’t even on most people’s radars when Moore unexpectedly passed away last summer due to injuries from an ATV accident on his farm. Heck, you could probably have liked the band back in your college days or something, but still not have known they’d lost a member. And that’s not to diminish the value of Moore’s hard work as a member of the band – he played the hell out of whatever instrument he put his lips on. I’m just saying that the band wasn’t on most of our minds at the time, so many of us probably weren’t going to find out until the band released a new album that, in its own oblique way, eulogized their fallen companion.
You know what else would be silly of me to say? That this new album, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, is only really significant because of Moore’s death. While the critical response to the new DMB disc has been overwhelmingly positive, it seems that a lot of folks are treating it like it would have been the usual hedonistic fare we’re used to from Matthews, and probably as irrelevant as the worst stuff on Stand Up and Everyday, if that horrible event hadn’t given Dave something more poignant to write about. It’s a silly thing to say because the band was working on several of these tracks while Moore was still around. He was part of this album (to what extent, I can’t quite tell, because new semi-permanent member Jeff Coffin fills in the blanks adequately enough for me to not know where Moore left off), and there are plenty of interesting songs here that aren’t about death. Think back to the downtrodden content of Busted Stuff (perhaps the only other critically respectable album that the DMB has put out this decade), or the highly experimental Before These Crowded Streets, or even some of the darker moments from Crash or Under the Table and Dreaming. Matthews has always been a little death-obsessed. Even if Moore’s passing pushed some of those vague questions about what’s on the other side and how he’s gonna sort out his disorganized soul before he goes up to the forefront of his mind, it’s not like those questions were all sitting on the back burner before. And it’s not like death is the only thing Big Whiskey has going for it, either – the album is just as strong in the “fun, giddy, and sometimes awkwardly sexy love song” department, too. In other words, these guys were getting their groove back well before tragedy struck.
And what a groove it is, too! Even if one were to disregard the lyrics entirely, I think Big Whiskey would stand out as the best project in the DMB catalogue since Crash, due to its uncanny ability to strike a balance between upbeat jams, delicate ballads, and dark, brooding, exploratory pieces. With all due respect to Before These Crowded Streets, still one of my favorite albums by the band, it took their open-ended noodling about as far as it could go, as most of the songs were downtempo downtempo and highly complex. Then, at the turn of the century, Dave pulled a rather strange move: the “I’m really depressed, oh wait just kidding I’m happy, here’s a pop record, oh wait not kidding, here’s a bunch of the depressing songs you protested about me not releasing the first time around” maneuver that brought us the slick, pedestrian, and way too concise Everyday, and the respectable but somnewhat sluggish Busted Stuff. And the less said about Stand Up, the better. In many ways, Big Whiskey gets right what Everyday got wrong. It’s a much more immediate record, with plenty of colorful melodies and confident guitar leads and memorable refrains. It’s more rhythmic, which gives drummer Carter Beauford a good workout. But it also flows from the happy stuff into its more downbeat tracks with finesse. The songs fit together; none of it feels forced. You won’t find any eight-minute jams here, but the songs are still given room to breathe and expand into something larger than life when needed, without ruminating on the same musical phrase for minutes at a time. It’s more composed than spontaneous, but it never feels stiff or studied. And every now and then, there’s a musical left turn to keep you guessing. The DMB has created a record that might have not been possible without the flawed experiments that preceded it. It marks a new chapter for the band, giving them a shot at a comeback without ever feeling like a cheap ploy to win back old fans who just want them to sound like their 90’s stuff again. And as much as I might have loved that old stuff, I sure can’t seem to get enough of this one, either.
Now I’d be remiss to gush about this album and not mention the one big drawback, which gives it yet another thing in common with Everyday: not enough of Boyd Tinsley. The man supposedly still plays violin for the band, and other occasional instruments such as the mandolin. But I can only really pick him out on a couple of tracks. The contributions of a few guest members (longtime guitar-wielding sidekick Tim Reynolds and banjo player Danny Barnes) actually seem to factor into the album more than Boyd does. I’m most partial to his instrument, so this is a bummer, but at the same time, if the Dave Matthews Band can manage such a great album despite such a handicap, then I can only imagine what they might come up with in the future, if they can keep the old creative juices flowing as freely as they did here.
Appropriately, Leroi Moore’s sax is the first thing you hear on the record, in a brief, seemingly spontaneous snippet brilliantly edited so that what starts out mellow builds up to a soulful wail which bleeds right into…
2) Shake Me Like a Monkey
The timing of Dave Matthews’ scream is perfect here, picking up where the sax left off and diving straight into a thick, up-tempo groove which reminds us that Dave’s not gonna spend a whole album moping around – not when there’s a party for two to be had! You can probably guess from the title that the song is overtly sexual, and while that means we occasionally get some classically dumb lyrics (“I like my coffee with toast and jelly, but I’d rather be licking from your back to your belly”? Please don’t elaborate any further, Dave), it also means that the band is having an absolute blast here. Remember “Rapunzel”? Take that track, straighten out the confusing rhythm (not that I was ever bothered by that), switch the acoustic guitar to electric, throw in Rashawn Ross‘s trumpet, and make the melody eerily reminiscent of Cameo‘s “Word Up!” (not joking), and that’s about what you’ve got here. It’s a slight guilty pleasure, but the DMB hasn’t been this much fun in ages.
3) Funny the Way It Is
The powers-that-be who decide such things as which singles get shipped to radio have smiled upon the DMB, selecting a fine song to hit radio first from this album. All at once, this one manages to have a dramatic sweep and offer a hint of consolation for their own loss, while being reasonably upbeat and packing a solid melodic punch. Instrumentally, it’s one of the best performances on an album packed with ’em – and it’s one of the only times that Boyd Tinsley appears to take the lead, sliding in and out of frame with little bits of soloing just when it’s needed most. Dave’s solo on the electric guitar is pretty slick, too. The lyrics are an interesting exercise in observing living contradictions, with the overall theme being that happiness and suffering coexist in the world, often in incongruous ways. It probably doesn’t take a genius to note that children are playing in the park on the same hot summer day that someone’s house is burning down, but it takes a clever twist of the pen to note than “One kid walks ten miles to school, and another’s dropping out”, or to point out the irony that the classic song “Why Can’t We Be Friends” was recorded by a band called War, or the real clincher, “Someone’s heart is broken, and it becomes your favorite song”, which aptly describes a good chunk of this album. While it’s hard to match the dramatic build of a DMB classic such as “Two Step”, this one sure gives it a darn good try, even going so far as to repeat the hectic chord changes and tongue-twisting lyrics of its bridge a second time for an extra punchy ending.
4) Lying in the Hands of God
You can tell from the title that this one’s going to be a bit heavy, but judging from the music, which gently bounces along on a tasy acoustic riff, you might not get that same impression. Paradox is at work here, too, even down to a song title that can be taken to have two very different meanings (lying down in the hands of God, or telling lies in the hands of God? Interesting…) Dave’s ongoing issues with the Almighty are further explored here, albeit rather cryptically – the only overarching meaning I can glean from it for sure is that he’s a little ticked off about some form of hypocrisy, as shown most effectively in a pair of killer lines: “If you never flew, why would you cut the wings off a butterfly?”, and later in the chorus, “Save your sermons for someone who’s afraid to love.” I’m never sure what side Dave’s gonna come out on regarding the whole God thing, but watching him wrestle with the pros and cons has led to some of the group’s best songs (see “Bartender”). Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Dave (or is it Tim Reynolds?) whips out a stellar slide guitar solo in the middle eight.
5) Why I Am
The horns are back to center stage here, as the album’s most obvious tribute to Leroi comes confidently marching in, Dave leading the way with an electric riff that’s as jumpy as his vocals were back in the old days. (Dave’s more growly these days, but he sounds much less ragged here than he did on Stand Up and Some Devil). The lyrics are an odd mix of callbacks to old songs (particularly the ongoing saga of a particular primate chronciled in “Proudest Monkey” and “Big Eyed Fish”), another bevy of lyrical contradictions (my favorite: “I grew drunk on water turned into wine, ’til I was slave and master at the same damn time”), and a commitment to keep their fallen friend’s spirit alive (“I’m still here dancing with the Groogrux King”). The chorus does this interesting thing every time it comes back around to the words “Why I Am”, first playing the normal 2 beats between each, then switching up the meter of the song so that there are three and then four beats between the words. It’s a subtle thing, but it adds a little extra personality to the song.
6) Dive In
What’s this – a piano ballad on a DMB album? Last time we heard that, it was on Stand Up, and most of the band aside from Dave was sidelined, and it just didn’t seem like a group effort at all. They’ve fixed that problem here, with the piano really turning out to be more of a melodic accent and Carter’s delicate, intricate percussion really being the standout instrument here. Dave takes another turn into armchair philosophy by pointing out his own tendency to ignore other people’s problems until it’s too late and they become his own. The “empty ocean” that he ironically encourages us to dive into could be the result of global warming or some other crisis of nature – something that can’t be written off as a kick-back day at the beach no matter how we might try. It’s funny how it sounds like such a sunny and relaxing song when listened to superficially – the melody’s too soothing for it to be unsettling, right? But then you look closer at the lyrics and you’re like, “Ohhhhhh, crap.”
What starts out as a lightly sexy love song with another tricky Carter beat and some classy fingerpicking from Dave turns into a whole different beast midway through, as a simple declaration that “I love the way you move me, baby” becomes a bit of a freak show with spacemen trying to get laid and Dave ruminating a bit more on his supposed sins (relax, Dave, God won’t send you to hell for getting it on with your wife!), and general weirdness like that. I can’t complain, it’s packed with personality and the band builds beautifully around the little acoustic dance that Dave has given them to work with. There’s even a banjo that shows up midway through (courtesy of Danny Barnes) and ends up dominating the song near the end. Man, I can’t remember the last time I heard banjo on a DMB album since Bela Fleck turned up on Before These Crowded Streets. (Was there one in “Louisiana Bayou”? I can’t recall. I think my memory has blocked out that irritating song.)
Dave’s darkest, most unflinching reflection on death shows up here, and suddenly the band has turned up the intensity without dialing down the playfulness, which means that the melodic backbone of this song is a fun little acoustic fret walk, which seems to carry a satisfied grin even as it plucks its way down, down, down into the depths of despair. One simply can’t write a song which repeats the line “drum beats louder” and not give it the instrumental intensity to match, and Carter knocks it out of the park here (the big, cavernous production values obviously help) with some of his most thunderous banging at just the right moments. A string section adds to the drama (and golly, I sure hope Boyd’s violin is one of those strings, since I haven’t mentioned the guy in several paragraphs now) as Dave ponders the fragility of pure flesh and bone and the misery of mortal toil, and asks if we can’t make the dead man sqiurm by bringing a little bit of Heaven to Earth rather than waiting for death to bring us to it. No matter how you slice it, this one is just freakin’ cool.
9) Alligator Pie
Ack, now I remember why I was thinking about “Louisiana Bayou”. It’s because this twangy, banjo-driven track reminds me of it. Thankfully the swmpy boogie and scat singing aren’t nearly as irritating here, and it turns out to be a fun tribute to the land of “Big Whiskey” that inspired the other half of this album’s title, with the lyrics playing as mostly nonsense with a moderate dose of fatalism. The line “Devil broke the levee and left us here to die”, combined with the dramatic fall-off and subsequent buildup of the song’s tempo partway through, seems to indicate that this one’s about the death and rebirth of New Orleans, but then it has that “Silly made-up kids’ song” aspect to it as well, especially since Dave keeps repeating the request of his daughter Stella: “Daddy, when you gonna put me in a song?”, and name-checking his other daughter when he comments that “Grace is all I’m asking, when will Grace return?” (His son August must feel so left out right now. Then again, he’s a two-year-old.)
The opening electric grumble of this song gives no warning as to the offbeat, lovesick romp that’s about to follow. The band likely thought this one up as an instrumental jam and named it for its rhythm, only for Dave to then write some gooey romantic lyrics on top of it. I’m not complaining. If you’re gonna sing mushy stuff about your wife, this is the way to do it – meandering along in 7/8 time with a slick, funky guitar riff and each member of the band doing their little licks on the side, syncopation running all over the place, and yet everyone remains interlocked within that crazy time signature. It shifts around, too – the bridge is in 5/8 and there are a couple of bars of 4/4 in there just so that we listeners can catch our collective breath. The math geek in me loves trying to keep count while singing along. At least the lyrics (many of which are sung in falsetto – I didn’t think Dave still had it in him!) are reasonably easy to follow – I think you’ll fall in love with this one so long as you don’t mind the shifting rhythm and the high amount of repetition as Dave sings “Love you, love you, you, you, you” over and over.
11) Time Bomb
Did I say that “Squirm” was this album’s darkest song? I take that back, because this one, while not directly about death, sure gives me the willies. You can tell from the melancholy start, in which the guitar and sax do an uneasy little dance with each other, that Dave’s gonna get rather moody here, and at first he’s quiet and somber, calmly telling us, “I’m a ticking time bomb, waiting to blow my top” and noting that nobody can tell how close he’s come to the brink of insanity. It’s too bad that the album’s lone profanity (“No one would believe it, except the f*cking nutjobs”) puts a slight blemish on an otherwise fantastic song, but I won’t dwell on that, because it’s all small potatoes in comparison to the stellar finale, which finds the horn section laying it on thick and Dave going into an all-out wail as he practically screams, “Baby when I get home, I wanna believe in Jesus!” And I’m just not sure what to make of that – is his madness driving him to the verge of confession and repentance and conversion and all that good stuff, or is he saying only crazy people get driven to believe such things, or are there simply deeper issues with the Almighty going on here than anyone outside of Dave’s head could ever fully understand? Probably the latter. I’m OK with that, because this is an intense and phenomenal performance. Once again, I didn’t think he still had it in him.
12) Baby Blue
While I still have my qualms about Dave going solo for a track on a record that’s supposed to be credited to the Dave Matthews Band, I can let all that slide since this is yet another in a series of solid love songs from Matthews’ pen. (Shoot, it beats the hell out of anything similarly themed on Some Devil.) This one’s delicate but still nimble-fingered, as the best DMB ballads are – it’s almost a flash forward to some unspecified point in time where the “until death do us part” aspect of the marriage equation comes into play and he has to say his last farewell to his lifelong companion. That’s what I get from the sweetly sad goodbyes as his baby drifts off into the blue. It’s nice to hear the sensitive side of Dave come out without there having to be some “you’re so sexy” sort of element to it (not that I mind the more sensual side of some of his love songs, but I like to know that isn’t the only thing on his mind).
13) You and Me
We might have arrived at one love song to many as the band closes out the record, but since this final, graceful dance closes things out so peacefully and hopefully, I really can’t complain. The future is explored here as well, perhaps pulling back a bit from a couple’s final moments together and instead looking forward to the day when the kids are all grown up and it’s just the two of them again. Dave’s ambitions for the future might be a bit saccharine, but the way that the music soars really sells it when he proclaims, “The two of us together, we could do anything, baby.” Despite being an intimate moment, the full band still gets involved, which helps to bring the record full circle, considering the confident love song that kicked it off. As album closers go, I’d say it’s as happy as “Everyday” but a bit more sophisticated on a musical level. It’s probably my favorite final track on any DMB album, aside from “Bartender”, of course.
And then we get one final Leroi moore sax solo as a hidden track, just to completely close the loop. *Sniff* We will miss you, Leroi.
So that’s it – the rundown of Dave Matthews Band’s first true comeback. It feels good to be a big fan again, and I hope that the four remaining members (and whoever else they bring along for the ride) live to make many more fine collections of songs like this one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Shake Me Like a Monkey $1.50
Funny the Way It Is $2
Lying in the Hands of God $1.50
Why I Am $1
Dive In $1.50
Alligator Pie $1
Time Bomb $1.50
Baby Blue $1.50
You and Me $1.50
Dave Matthews: Lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars
Carter Beauford: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Stefan Lessard: Bass
Boyd Tinsley: Violin
Leroi Moore: Saxophone (died in 2008)
NOT OFFICIAL BAND MEMBERS, BUT THEY HANG AROUND A LOT:
Jeff Coffin: Saxophone
Tim Reynolds: Electric guitar
Rashawn Ross: Trumpet
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.