May 10th, 2005
Blender Album Review
Reviewed by Ann Powers
Is anybody else sick of hearing Dave Matthews declare himself a nutcake? Locked in mortal combat with a perennially boring haircut, this 38-year-old husband, father of twins and musical monogamist (he’s worked with the same band for 14 years) wields the darkness in his soul like a weapon he just can’t keep concealed.
In interviews, Matthews blurts about suicidal impulses; onstage he babbles in a nonlinear patois fans dub “Davespeak.” And in his lyrics, so often quoted in yearbooks and bathroom stalls, he trips on a tightrope between despair and desire, unable to decide whether to dive off a ledge or beneath his lover’s skirt.
Beyond the normal human mood swings, Matthews has a troubled history: being partly raised in apartheid-riven South Africa, his dad and then sister dying young, having to wait tables before getting so famous, all those fans bootlegging and that waste-dumping problem in Chicago last year. But maybe the real reason he puts on the crazy clothes is because they suit the music he hears in his head and translates into unlikely hit records.
Listen beneath the groove that makes his music seem like mainstream roots-rock and you’ll hear a ragtag reconfiguration of American music’s essential elements, from immigrant beats to swinging Western fiddle runs. It’s an unresolved sound, a perfect setting for emotions that can’t quite be contained or even defined. Playing with this musical setting brings out the shaky side of an ordinary guy.
This sixth outing by the Dave Matthews Band (their first since 2003’s solo Matthews effort, Some Devil) contains more than a few troubling tales—“Smooth Rider” is a stalker’s ode, “Louisiana Bayou” tells a murky story of gothic intrigue, “Hello Again” is a murder ballad and the first single, “American Baby,” goes into battle with a recruit (probably a soldier in Iraq, given Matthews’ well-publicized anti-Bush stance, though it’s never stated) who pines for home.
But its most important narrative doesn’t come in words: It’s the relationship between DMB’s five nimble instrumentalists, who take Putumayo globalism to a Sigma Chi frat party. This musical plotline reveals itself immediately, with the introduction to the tranquil ballad “Dreamgirl”—Matthews’ voice multiplied into a fanfare that sounds like a township choir.
Such African elements are emphasized throughout. Matthews’ delicate guitar lays the groundwork for the elaborate patternwork of violinist Boyd Tinsley and bassist Stefan Lessard. Sax player LeRoi Moore brings the boat to America, showing a connection between Africa, funk and jazz. And drummer Carter Beauford moves with almost untraceable agility, riding a rock backbeat here and a polyrhythm there, driving home the main point: In a multicultural world, the old idea of rock fusion (jazz-rock, country-rock, etc.) gives way to a more intricate and playful dance.
Producer Mark Batson, who is currently hot as a hitmaker with Gwen Stefani, Eminem and Beyoncé, has a lot to do with the complexity. The portion of his résumé that’s relevant here is the lesser-known collaborations with great, under-the-radar New York artistes like Arto Lindsay. Batson is a true master of understated enhancement, whether it’s the way hip-hop handclaps are mingled with Beauford’s island-style percussion on the summery “Old Dirt Hill” or the compressed vocals on the Sting-alicious spiritual protest song “Everybody Wake Up.”
The DMB member with the biggest challenge here is, strangely, Matthews. His stream-of-consciousness lyrics always fit the group’s improvisatory ethic, but Batson’s meticulousness forces Matthews to think more like a storyteller, less like a charming babbler. He still relies heavily on clichés—the ballad “Steady As We Go” is so full of them it’s guaranteed to become a wedding-reception favorite—but he adds such humble conviction they’re forgivable. He also has a very dirty mind, which for the most part is a good thing; nothing battles platitudes like an earthy detail about sweat running down a lover’s spine.
Best are the moments when Matthews relaxes, playing with his itchy baritone as he fingers another easy guitar line and his band follows along. Does the pop world need another isolated oddball? Not so much. But this Dave Matthews, the one wearing team colors in a globetrotting amazing race, is one worth rooting for.