Dave Matthews Band has been together nearly two decades and amassed one of the largest and most dedicated fanbases in current music. The group’s had its share of radio hits over the years, but they don’t crank out number one songs year after year. Nor do the release half of an album’s tracks as singles in order to ride the success of an album for years the way Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake do.
No, they just tour. Summer after summer, DMB is coming through your town and probably selling out the venue. They’ve only released seven studio albums, but they’ve undoubtedly embarked on twice as many tours, often testing new material on the audiences before ever releasing it on an album. In fact, the band has released more live albums than studio work. The reason is that DMB is a live band notorious for its long jams, improvs, and changing setlists. They just happen to release albums ever few years. Both the band and the fans know it, and neither seems to mind.
Now, as the band releases its seventh studio disk, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, I’d venture to say anyone who will buy it has already decided to do so. Anyone averse to the band has no intention of buying it. And whichever category you fall into, if you’re basing your opinion on past albums, you’re probably making the right decision. Big Whiskey is yet another DMB album that has a few potential Top 40 hits, some tunes to please the jam fans, and a sprinkling of strong songs that deserve to be heard.
Fortunately the strong songs are some of the best studio tracks the band’s released since 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, a dark album that stands out as an aberration on the mostly sunny discography. Here, “Time Bomb” begins as an intimate confessional from Dave Matthews set against his quiet acoustic guitar and Carter Beauford’s soft drums. The music threatens to veer into trademark Matthews ballad territory, but the lyrics draw a darker picture as he sings, “Would we put the weapon down or aim it at the sky? / No one would believe it except the fucking nutjobs / They laugh and cry, We told you so.'” Two-thirds of the way into the song, a quickened rhythm, horns, and harsher vocals turn the song into a legitimate rocker. On the group’s last album, 2005’s Stand Up, certain tracks wanted to achieve the same level of intensity, but slick production castrated even the best songs (“You Might Die Trying” and “Hunger for the Great Light”). Here, you can pick out each musician’s contribution and hear the reverb thanks to producer Rob Cavallo’s handiwork. This might be the band’s first headphones-worthy release since Before These Crowded Streets.
“Squirm” is another noteworthy track that sounds like the band might be on its way to successfully transferring the energy of its live shows onto records. The jazzy opening quickly gives way to a melancholy melody accented with Matthews’ gravel voice filtered and layered on itself. When he broods, “Drum beats louder,” he sounds as if he’s taunting Beauford and warning listeners for what’s to come.
On the flip side, plenty of the MOR radio fodder the band’s become known (and vilified) for over the years is on here and it’s very much more of the same. Songs like “Funny the Way It Is” and “Why I Am” feel like retreads of songs we’ve heard since “Crash Into Me” became a massive hit. That’s not to say there’s anything inherently bad about them, but that’s the problem: They’re just there, taking up valuable disk space.
Other songs aren’t complete knockouts but feel as if they have a sense of purpose, and “Lying In the Hands of God” is a prime example. Bittersweet lyrics that you don’t expect to hear Matthews whisper are refreshing and jarring set against an acoustic melody suitable for a coffee shop. And while lyrics haven’t ever been the reason you buy the albums, anytime the band ventures into soul-searching territory, the result is more successful than any straight love song. See past songs like “Crush” and “Bartender” for proof.
You can’t help but notice the album struggles to find a footing in a single theme, be it romance or sadness. The band had recorded some of Big Whiskey when founding member and saxophonist LeRoi Moore died last summer. The title is a partial reference to Moore and the album has a distinct tributary vibe to it, so relationship references feel as if they can serve couples as well as friends. On the one hand, I wonder if the band struggled between making the album as they set out to or as an overt salute to Moore. Maybe it was never an issue, but it does feel a bit schizophrenic at times. Still, the tension between the two topics adds a welcome dimension to the tracks.
At the end of the day, this is yet another Dave Matthews Band release that fans will embrace and naysayers (or disinterested parties) will easily ignore. As someone who gravitates toward the band’s moodier pieces, this album ranks higher for me than Under the Table and Dreaming and Stand Up. Having heard several of these songs in concert, it’s apparent the LPs are merely an appetizer for the live shows. Will it end up on many (or my) year end lists? Probably not. But then again, has that ever been the case?