Posted by: Nathan | June 9, 2006

Dave Matthews Band: Will the Music ever be as Good?

My favorite band has long been Dave Matthews Band (DMB), and I’ve been a fan long enough to see their music evolve. I will leave a long-winded examination of the lives and times of the DMB to a biographer or wikipedia, but what I will engage in this post is the question that is at the forefront of my mind whenever I think about DMB: will the music ever be as good? Note: I do not say, “Will it ever be the same?” because sameness is not something one should ask from a band; musicians need to change and encounter different things in order to write more music. I do think the listener has the obligation to expect the same quality of music regardless of disparities between albums. I will try to be brief*, as the casual music fan won’t be interested in a regurgitation of all my thoughts and feelings related to Dave Matthews Band.

DMB’s first three discs represent the best of music for me. Under the Table and Dreaming (1994), Crash (96), and Before These Crowded Streets (98) are filled with beautiful musicality, instrumentation, and powerful lyrics (If you’re interested, I’ll include more thorough album notes below). From 1998-2000, there was not a single DMB track I didn’t like. I saw the band twice during these times, and the concerts were instrumentally blistering and beautiful.

The change for me (and many DMB fans) came with 2001’s Everyday. The band’s sound went from melodic and extended to sharp and short. Much of the instrumentation was cut in that effort, and the album suffered greatly as a result. DMB tried to make amends with Busted Stuff (o2), and largely succeeded, remaking many of the songs that had been leaked from the Lillywhite Sessions (00 unreleased), most of them for the better. The band also included a couple impressive new tracks. Still, it was a recapitulation of prior work.

After a three year wait, 2005 saw the release of Stand Up. I had high hopes for the album: I wanted to see the band make new music as well as they did during the ’90s, but it was not to be. Stand Up is not a bad album, but it doesn’t fly to the heights of their earlier work–some tracks don’t get off the ground. There are moments when the listener hears the band at their peak, but they are only ephemeral and teasing.

Now, as Dave Matthews Band embarks on yet another summer tour (you gotta love ’em for that), I wonder if their music will ever be as good as it used to be. I don’t want them to feel that they have to make the same kind of music or make it in the same way, but the praticed DMB listening ear knows when the band is making music to their capacity. The music of DMB at their best is unrivaled (in my opinion anyway)–it is beautiful, captivating, melodic, sweet, and powerful. It’s an overwhelming musical experience that is unique to DMB. However, as they’ve shown on Everyday and Stand Up, such music doesn’t just flow out of them–it takes time, effort, and (most importantly) care.

Perhaps DMB doesn’t care about the craft of music making as much as they used to. Maybe they think they can go to the studio and create music that will sell no matter what (which is probably true). What I hope they realize is that incredible music is timeless and surpassing: the fact that they can make such beautiful music implies that they should craft it.

Despite the disappointment of Stand Up and Everyday, part of me remains optimistic about the new album the band plans to record this fall. DMB has played two new songs on this year’s tour, and both “The Idea of You” and “Kill the King” sound pretty solid, especially the former. “Idea” is a throwback to amazing instrumentation and soaring melody, and I adore the saxophone solo. “King” isn’t as appealing but still is solid despite it’s odd mix of love song and regicide.

No matter what they do, Dave Matthews Band has already recorded the best music I’ve ever heard, and they remain one of the elite bands of our time (admittedly, it’s not as hard as it used to be to play better music than most). Here’s to hoping that DMB takes their time writing and recording the new album coming out this fall. It’s encouraging that the tour is coming before the studio session as that was the way the first three albums were created and makes for more mature songs. The band has the capacity for another magnificent record; it remains to be seen if DMB will ever make it.

Album Reviews

Under the Table and Dreaming
: Simple, varied, beautiful, and original. The songs are rich with catchy guitar hooks and swell with instrumentation. The violin and saxophone sweeten the album throughout, and the band maintains a full sound on each track. Dave’s lyrics are direct, longing, and optimistic–optimism is something I always value in DMB’s music. Contains such epics as: “The Best of What’s Around,” “What Would You Say,” “Satellite,” “Dancing Nancies,” “Ants Marching” (still my favorite song), “Jimi Thing,” and “Warehouse.” 9.6/10 A

Crash: The sound on this album is more full and alive. The instruments blend better, and there are more moments of instrumental transcendence during which the listener is caught up in the rush of mounting, overlapping melody. Crash is symphonic at times and shows a focus on sound and melody unparalleled in the ’90s. Themes of songs on this disc are mostly about sex and love, but also include the nature of man, societal surfeit, and political freedom. Contains the epics: “Two Step,” “Crash Into Me” (ODB‘s favorite), “#41,” “Say Goodbye,” “Lie in Our Graves,” and “Tripping Billies.” 9.7/10 A

Before These Crowded Streets
: The darkest of these three discs, BTCS is by far the most diverse sounding and artistic album DMB’s made to date. DMB shows their range on this CD; at times, the instrumentation is bold and overwhelming, and other times it is simple and delicate. The album is the most complete and holds together better than prior ones. Lyrically, Dave explores loss, death, and broken dreams, but he also finds hope to explore love’s triumph and joy–he is at his most poetic. Epics: “Rapunzel,” “The Last Stop,” “Stay,” “The Stone,” “Crush,” “The Dreaming Tree,” and “[Don’t Burn the] Pig.” 9.7/10 A

Everyday: A complete departure (for the worse) from their previous albums, Everyday never amazes and is rarely beautiful. All the artistic brush strokes have been traded in for a rollerbrush–the sound never achieves fullness and the violin and sax are all but absent. The lyrics vary from love songs and sexuality to overcoming differences and the legacy of the past. My description makes the lyrics sound better than they are, but unfortunately they are usually blunt and not deep with a couple exceptions. Epics: “The Space Between,” and “So Right.” Poor efforts: “Dreams of Our Fathers,” “If I Had it All,” “Fool to Think,” “Mother Father.” 6.7/10 B-

Busted Stuff: Consists mostly of remakes of the unreleased Lillywhite Sessions, most of which are changed for the better (noteably: “Grey Street,” “Raven, ” and “Grace is Gone”) with some exceptions (“Captain,” once a poignant song about losing control of one’s life becomes a love song). Musically, the full band sound makes a welcome return, but one cannot escape the feeling that they’ve done this album before. Kickin’ solos on “Raven” and “Grace is Gone.” The two new tracks “Where Are You Going” and especially the triumphant “You Never Know” only add to the soundscape. Lyrically, Dave’s back to form, using imagery and emotion to make the listener feel his music–his forte. Epics: “Grey Street,” “You Never Know,” “Grace is Gone,” “Big Eyed Fish,” “Bartender.” 9/10 A

Stand Up: The band tries yet another producer on this disc, Mr. Mark Batson, and the result is that DMB feels freer to use little riffs or hooks and make entire songs out of them. Sometimes this works (“American Baby”) but frequently it results in songs that should’ve remained only pieces of a song. This album is the strangest DMB disc to date: the musicality is hit-and-miss, there are sound effects in random places (bombs dropping?), and the lyrics tend toward the bizarre (e.g. “Dreamgirl”: “I could dig a hole to China unless of course I was there, and then I’d dig my way home / If by digging I could steal the wind from the sails of the greedy men who rule the world”–WHA?!). The album is more solid and mature than Everyday, but it also tends towards Matthews dominance. The second half of the disc is far better than the first, as the band plays songs it had written prior to the recording session (“Hello Again”) or rediscovers melody (“Steady As We Go”). Matthews lyrics are frequently nonsensical or crude, leaning toward explicitness rather than image; a few songs recapture the DMB trademark optimism and melody, and these save the disc from mediocrity. Epics: “Steady As We Go” and “You Might Die Trying” (other tracks have probably improved with live performances). Poor Efforts: “Smooth Rider,” “Everybody Wake Up,” and “Hunger For the Great Light.” 7.5/10 B

Okay, you non-DMB fans, you’ve gotta give me dap for not writing a DMB post already. I’ve had my blog for 4 months!!

*Looks like that didn’t really work out. Oh well.

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Responses

  1. Well stated, my friend. I think it’s a combination of lazy lyricism and a producer who says “Hey! That’s a song!” when really it’s only a hook (and not necessarily a good one). I hope ‘Idea’ and ‘King’ are a sign of things to come. They are still sublime on stage, but that hasn’t translated into the studio for a while. Great post!

    Also, as likely the only fellow DMB fan who regularly reads your blog, I give you DAP for restraining for 4 months.


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