In Brief: This was the DMB’s first studio album and yet everyone was already at the top of their game. Crash remains my favorite, but this one is darn close.
Sometimes I need a little incentive to get a review finished and posted when it’s been on my to do list for years and I’m still hemming and hawing over how to describe it. When my collection of Dave Matthews Band albums came up next in the alphabetical queue (roughly the midway point in my CD collection), falling on the same week that the band released a brand-spankin’ new album, I told myself I wasn’t going to listen to the new one until I finally got my review of their major label debut, Under the Table and Dreaming, done. It seems only fair – UTTAD is a classic album, some would say the best in their discography, loaded with radio hits and DMB fan favorites alike, and now would be a weird time to have whatever musical direction the band’s taking these days clouding my judgment, for better or worse. That was the problem the first few times I listened to this album, way back in the year 2000 after I had just rediscovered Crash and I was still in the process of trying to swallow the weird musical nugget that was Before These Crowded Streets (now one of my favorite DMB albums). I was already late to both of those parties, but for better or worse those discs got the lion’s share of my attention, making UTTAD only an occasional listen. I knew that I liked it. I knew that it contained several of my personal favorite songs by the band. But by virtue of it not being quite as polished as Crash and not as otherworldly as Streets, I don’t think I really gave all of its songs my full attention for a while there. I was not only late to this party – this was where a lot of the band’s die-hard fans had gotten in on the ground floor (well, at least the European first floor), and the party had already cleaned up and gone home by the time I arrived. I just wasn’t sure what I had to add.
Well, I think enough time has passed now that none of that matters any more. In the grand scheme of the band’s twenty-year history, six years no longer seems like that late of an arrival. I was still in high school when this thing came out in 1994. I wouldn’t have understood it then. Even in 2000, with my musical tastes still expanding beyond the narrow bubble they’d been previously confined to, I still cast a sidelong glance at certain songs that struck me as college dead-head anthems or that felt overly hedonistic. I was still stereotyping a band that I claimed to have just become a big fan of. Given that some of my favorite songs on those other two albums were about things like sex, one-night stands, gluttony, railing against religion, and um… more sex, this was kind of hypocritical of me. UTTAD’s songs are, for the most part, a lot more existential and not nearly as blatant as a lot of Matthews’ later material. This is where he got his start as an armchair philosopher, using oddball metaphors that probably only completely connect the dots in his own mind, to ask some pretty huge questions about the current state of the world, its eventual fate, and just what the heck we’re all doing here. It doesn’t really try to answer most of them; rather, its goal seems to be to help you relax and enjoy life to its fullest despite the nagging fact that you still don’t have those answers. I wouldn’t necessarily call a lot of it brilliant songwriting… but since it’s so lovably strange and full of character, I find that I can’t nitpick it too harshly, either. It’s fun, and occasionally it takes you on a weird and wonderful journey down the rabbit hole. That’s more entertainment than I get out of a lot of songwriters these days.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about the DMB could probably tell you that lyrics are secondary anyway. The real draw here is the music. This is where most of the world began its love affair with the band’s intoxicating blend of fancy acoustic fingerwork, euphoric sax and fiddle solos that often sounded far removed from the musical genres that inspired them, and dizzying percussion. Writing these guys off as if all they ever did was play repetitive motifs for hours on end for a bunch of burned out hippies would be a serious mistake. Even at this stage of still being a little wet behind the ears, Dave and co. turned out 12 incredibly unique songs – none remotely like the other – the beautifully demonstrate the depth and breadth of their capabilities. You’ve got your easygoing love songs, your epic seven-minute jams packed with memorable riffs and tasty solos, and even a few deliciously dark moments that remind us the band was never about simply settling for catchy radio singles. Everyone in the band is 100% on their game here. There might be a few songs that still haven’t caught on with me after all these years, but I could even say that about Crash and that’s still their most amazing album in my book. UTTAD is equally as deserving of attention as that album. If you’ve gotten into the band at all – even due to passing interest in a song that came out of left field on the radio during an era when everything hitting it big seemed to be either grungy alternative or vapid urban pop – then I think it would be well worth going back in time and getting a glimpse of where it all started for these guys.
1. The Best of What’s Around
Maybe part of the reason I had a mental block regarding this album’s greatness for so long is because it doesn’t get off to that great of a start. While I can appreciate the easygoing upbeatness of a song like this, and I can see that it’s well-loved enough among their fandom to get a greatest hits collection named after it (though that was sort of a foregone conclusion from the title, wasn’t it?), this one always felt a bit clumsy to me. The lyrics, which are about making the most of the life we have now instead of constantly wishing for more, are good enough in how they convey their sentiments. The problem is that Dave crammed in so many of ’em that the song’s chorus is clumsy and impossible to remember. It’s borderline incoherent, and while I don’t mind a lot of his other songs having that rambling, overstuffed feel to them, it doesn’t fit with the relaxed vibe. None of that stymies anyone else in the band – Leroi in particular gets some tasty sax breaks here. But when they get to the climax of the song and suddenly there’s this crowd-friendly vamp that simply repeats “Ha, ha, hey, la” over and over, one gets the feeling that the guys were desperate for crowd participation and couldn’t work out how to make that possible with actual lyrics. This is the falsest start that the band would have on any album up until Stand Up‘s “Dreamgirl” (and that entire album was a misfire in general).
2. What Would You Say
Now this is how you get a party started! This early hit for the DMB remains one of their most enduring and crowd-pleasing songs, and for good reason – it’s just packed to the brim with awesomeness, and the band doesn’t even need to veer off into a lengthy jam session to prove it. Dave’s furiously fast and yet happy-go-lucky acoustic guitar riff (which is overdubbed by sideman Tim Reynolds, as is a lot of the acoustic riffing on this album) sets the tone right away, as do his hyperactive yet conversational vocals, which are really spewing a bunch of non-sequitur nonsense vaguely related to the idea that you shouldn’t let your life pass you by because you never quite know when you’re gonna go… or something like that. Who really needs to understand a song like this to enjoy it when it’s so ridiculously fun? The call-and-response chorus is a blast (and it’s the first in a long line of DMB songs to mention monkeys – not sure what Dave’s obsession with that animal is all about). The momentary shift to a 3/4 time signature in the lead-up to the chorus is a fun little detour. Carter has a total blast on the drums (I love his “knocking” just as Dave signs the line “Knock, knock on the door, who’s it for, there’s nobody in here!”) Leroi gets another great solo, though the musician who really gets the spotlight here is John Popper from Blues Traveler, who absolutely kills it during his harmonica break. This is way more of a blast than anyone should be able to have singing a song about original sin and our inevitable demise.
One of the band’s most beautiful love songs is up next, and this is another one that has their unique musical stamp all over it and yet was still a successful radio single. The start-stop guitar picking intro is immediately recognizable, and then Boyd sweetens the deal by echoing it on the violin. For most of the band, it’s an exercise in restraint, as least during the verses – I love how Carter seems to sketch around the rhythm of the song rather than playing it straight, while Leroi adds a few notes here and there just as an accent. The chorus, of course, is where they fill it in and let the colors fly. The beautiful melody is one of Dave’s all time best, and it’s all in service of a story about a man who’s stuck on the outside looking in at someone he has great affection for who can’t seem to escape her own little bubble. Something like that. You might hear the words “peeping tom for the mother station” and make a snarky comment about how it’s a call forward to “Crash into Me”, but for the most part, the attraction here seems to be Dave’s curiosity about the strange little world he’s found himself orbiting, not just his hormones. I’m amazed that, despite knowing and loving this song for over ten years, I never knew that Johnny Galecki (then recognizable from his role on Roseanne, now famous for playing Leonard on The Big Bang Theory) played the central role in its music video. Like I said… late to the party.
4. Rhyme & Reason
Sometimes I look at this one as a bit of a dry run for Crash‘s “Too Much”. The theme is certainly similar, as Dave’s voice gets quite a bit more snarly as he deals with the demons of excessive hedonism and addiction. The difference between that later song and this one is that while “Too Much” hammed it up on purpose and seemed to take a great deal of joy in overstuffing itself, “Rhyme & Reason” is comparatively leaner and meaner. Here it’s not meant to be taken lately, as Dave seems to be writing from the other end of a really bad trip. He seems to want to stop the cycle, but the fear it causes leads to another round of drinking and shooting up, and he’s well aware that this pattern could lead him to an early grave. His voice gets more hoarse and growly as the song goes on (a characteristic that was difficult for me to get used to when I first got into the band, since he doesn’t do it nearly as much on Crash), so while it might seem easygoing enough at first with its gliding acoustic riff and the glaring bright lights provided by Leroi’s sax, the chorus provides a sufficient jolt with its sharp stabs of sax and fiddle as Dave grumbles, “My head won’t leave my head alone! And I don’t believe it will until I’m six feet underground!” This gets intense enough to devolve into near-incoherent rambling as the song comes crashing to a close. It’s unsettling, but it’s well-executed.
5. Typical Situation
This is one of those songs where Dave gets all mellow on us and waxes philosophical, and it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but it’s performed so beautifully that I still think it’s one of his best songs. The band leaves plenty of space for his repeating acoustic riff, only providing a slight bit of ambiance to keep the lonely feeling of a man isolated in his own thoughts intact. Dave muses, with Yoda-esque syntax, about various elements of the world around him that come in numbered groups, counting down systematically from ten to one: “Ten fingers counting we have each/Nine planets around the Sun repeat” – (whoops!) – “Eight ball will last if you triumphant be/Seven oceans pummel the shores of the sea.” This is a bit silly, but I like how it dovetails in the repeated phrase “It all comes down to nothing”. The chorus may as well have been lifted from another song, since this is where the band begins to get spirited and lively as the song carries on: “Everybody’s happy, everybody’s free/We’ll keep the big door open and everyone’ll come around/Why are you different?Why are you that way?/If you don’t get in line we’ll lock you away.” What started as a tranquil meditation gradually gets swept away in a huge river of sound, and the jam session at the end is one of the group’s best, especially when Leroi whips out his flute. (Ahem. I mean an actual flute. Don’t go there.)
6. Dancing Nancies
More existential angst comes up in this song, which stumbles out of the gate rather awkwardly at first, as if Dave and Carter kept stopping and starting and watching each other for cues. This one seems to be about looking at other people’s circumstances and wondering if you could have ended up being anyone other than yourself, if your circumstances had been different. I must have spent a year musing about stuff like that in Philosophy 101 and I still don’t have any answers, so it’s not like I can expect Dave to come up with any useful ones in five minutes or so. This is the song that I think of when I see the “headless dancer” logo that was later used as the cover image for Stand Up, and for better or worse it’s become my Exhibit A when I think of classic DMB songs that everyone in the band’s fandom seems to have gotten into before I did. The awkward rhythm of it (even if that only matters in the intro) and the implied gender-bending sort of put me off at first. The schizophrenic contrast between its verse (which is brooding and minor-key) and its wide-eyed chorus was also a stumbling block – but to be fair, if any song deserves to be schizophrenic in nature, it’s probably this one, since it’s so concerned with issues of personal identity and all. Since then I’ve come to discover the upside – Leroi’s jazzy sax runs come together beautifully with Boyd’s insistent fiddling in the chorus, and the vamp is one of the few places on a DMB record where bassist Stefan Lessard really gets to stand out (he’s a really talented guy as far as bass players go, but being in a band full of talented guys, he still gets overlooked a lot). Ultimately, it’s performed so well by all involved that I find myself more easily overlooking its inherent awkwardness these days.
7. Ants Marching
There aren’t many songs that can easily be recognized just from four hits on a snare drum. But this – quite possibly the DMB’s signature song – is one of ’em. The crowd will be guaranteed to go wild as soon as Carter starts in with that calm, evenly paced rhythm, and the very few who don’t get what’s going on will figure it out as soon as Boyd chimes in with the song’s huge fiddle hook. Those two guys own this song, though it isn’t for lack of trying on anyone else’s part – Dave’s fretwork is nimble while Carter matches his fluid runs on the bass, and at one point Leroi’s trading off licks with Boyd – it’s always fun to hear those two playing off of each other. The lyrics – which are all about breaking from conformity – are vintage DMB as well, describing people in their daily routines who have given up their dreams and now march mindlessly toward the completion of each task, like ants on a food trail. The uninitiated will probably think it’s some sort of psychotic square dance – especially when Dave starts in with the motor mouth during the bridge – but the funny part is that this doesn’t even put a dent in the audience participation aspect of the song when it’s played live. Hardcore fans and clueless passers-by seemed to fall in love with this one equally. It’s incessantly catchy in its own weird way, and this was exactly the kind of thing radio was apparently looking for back in the 90s, when being “the alternative to the alternative” was at its apex.
8. Lover Lay Down
A bit of a subdued romantic ballad is up next – we probably needed the break after the dense instrumental action going on in the previous bunch of songs. But for some reason, this one never stood out to me. Probably because there’s a wealth of slow and sexy songs in the DMB catalogue, and this one seems rather simplistic by comparison. Dave and Leroi are the only ones doing anything noticeable here, merging introspective acoustic pop with a bit of a “smooth jazz” sort of feel that complements Dave’s well-meaning but overly simplified love letter of a lyric. There’s a charming sense of playfulness to it, evident in certain lines like “Sleep I would inside your mouth”, or the vamp, where he sings about her “Chasing me all around, leading me all around in circles”. It’s cute. It just isn’t the tour de force that later songs like “Crush” would be in the romance department.
9. Jimi Thing
This is another one that I struggled with for a long time before finally admitting that it was really well done and lots of fun to listen to. The first thing that bugged me about it was that it felt like a justification of the whole “tune in, light up, drop out” stereotype that a nay-sayer might assume every DMB song is about. The second verse makes that hard to avoid: “Take a drink, sit back, relax/Smoke my mind, make me feel better for a small time”. Of course the crowd goes nuts whenever he sings that line in concert. But in the grander scheme of things, it’s not a song about getting drunk or high – it’s a song about being content the life you have. Immediately following that bothersome lyric is one of Dave’s most concise and true observations: “What I want is what I’ve not got/When what I need is all around me.” If that’s starting to sound familiar, as well as the descending chord progression in the chorus, then that’s because this song is basically “The Best of What’s Around”, done better. It’s got the same easygoing attitude (though it takes a little longer for the whole band to dive in and join Dave, compared to “The Best” in which everyone jumps in immediately), but there’s a lot more space for both Leroi and Boyd to thrown in generous solos, which are some of my favorite moments on the album. Ultimately, I don’t even know what a “Jimi Thing” even is – there are lots of fan theories floating around out there – but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with putting on some Jimi Hendrix and having a party. “I don’t care if you don’t like it”, Dave comments in the chorus. But I hope he cares that I’m finally starting to like it.
There’s a reason why this song became the namesake for the group’s fan club. Sprawling out to seven minutes, this would have never had a hope of being a radio single, but it’s a good litmus test for whether you’re a casual fan of the DMB or whether you can appreciate their deeper, more exploratory material. It’s a haunted funhouse of a song, a smorgasbord of musical ideas that still manages to fit together as a complete and satisfying package. As effects-heavy guitar and fiddle riffs swirl about and the sax blurts out urgent notes like a blaring siren, we delve deep into a world of superstitions and paranormal occurrences and all of Dave’s hopes and fears about what lies on the other side of the grave. It’s a bit of a surprise, given all that, when the song frequently transitions out of this foreboding mood into a peppy, bouncy little refrain which features Carter loudly banging on a cowbell. Lots of songs on this album have a bit of contrast between a moody verse and a light-hearted refrain, but this song’s got about three or four different motifs that I might consider to be “the hook” or “the chorus”, so I’m not exactly sure what to call this one. By any name, it’s a roller-coaster ride, mashing together the numerous genres and musical influences that make the DMB such a fascinatingly weird mutant of a band. You can tell this one’s tailor-made so that the band can add, remove, and rearrange sections of it at will, and consequently, it’s always a highlight whenever it’s played live, sometimes stretching out to ten minutes or more. It honestly doesn’t feel that long. Even after years of listening to it and loving it, I was surprised to actually look at the track length as it approached the end and wonder how the time flew by so quickly.
11. Pay For What You Get
With “Warehouse” being the epic climax that it is, it’s sort of weird to have not one, but two tracks after it as a sort of cool-down to end the album. This being the last track with lyrics, it’s a bit of a bitter ending for an otherwise triumphant album, since Dave gets all sour grapes on us regarding a relationship that recently ended. I love Carter’s jazzy time signature and Dave and Tim’s rhythmic fretwork – there’s a little bit of Leroi here just for flavor, but the song is still quite stripped down, showing us a different side of the band. Whoever this girl is who used to be the light of Dave’s life, she apparently got too crazy to deal with, and now in the aftermath of the relationship, people keep bugging him with questions about her: “Every body asks me how she’s doing, since she went away/I said, ‘I couldn’t tell you, I’m okay’.” I love how he interjects how he’s doing as part of the answer to that question as if to sarcastically retort, “Well, gee, I’m fine, thanks for asking!” This is a good performance, but it does sort of trail off at the end and give the main portion of the album a bit of a weak conclusion.
Remember the 90s, when we were still amused by the idea of the hidden track and it was considered de rigueur to stash some sort of bonus material that didn’t fit the tone of the album into that slot after the last song? Here, the band sort of subverts that by actually listing the track, but not displaying any track numbers on the album’s back cover, so you’ll momentarily wonder what’s going on when track 12 is only a few seconds of silence, followed by the same thing on 13, and 14… then finally this quiet, idiosyncratic little instrumental piece starts up on track 34. (This was apparently the 34th piece that the band wrote together, and in those days they had a habit of leaving some of their songs unnamed and just using the numbers to identify them.) Another finger-picked guitar figure, similar to the opening of “Satellite”, leads this one off, in a tricky time signature of 9/8, while Leroi gently adds notes around it, everyone tiptoeing carefully as if the song were a sort of eulogy. The song reaches a sudden, loud climax about 2/3 of the way through, which does help to give the album a sense of finality at its true end, but it still feels a bit unresolved when all is said and done. Fortunately none of that detracts from what is, yet again, a beautiful performance by everyone involved.
So that’s it. I finally gave a classic DMB album its due. And I’m probably dooming anything new of theirs to fail by comparison due to how deeply I’ve had to focus on Under the Table and Dreaming to write semi-coherently about it. Nevertheless… Away with the World, here I come!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Best of What’s Around $.50
What Would You Say $2
Rhyme & Reason $1
Typical Situation $1.50
Dancing Nancies $1.25
Ants Marching $1.75
Lover Lay Down $.50
Jimi Thing $1
Pay For What You Get $1
Dave Matthews: Lead vocals, guitars
Boyd Tinsley: Violin, backing vocals
Leroi Moore: Saxophone, flute, pennywhistle (deceased)
Carter Beauford: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Stefan Lessard: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.