Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
On the Dave Matthews Band’s latest album, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” (RCA), the band’s late saxophonist LeRoi Moore gets the first word, and the last.
Though Moore died last August at age 46 from injuries suffered in an all-terrain vehicle accident, his shadow hovers over the band’s seventh --- and best --- studio album, most of which was recorded last winter in New Orleans with producer Rob Cavallo, who has previously worked with Green Day and My Chemical Romance.
Moore’s saxophone solos begin and end the 13-song album, and his spirit informs the rest, a series of restless tracks obsessed with fleeting pleasures and final reckonings. It’s not a somber album. On the contrary, it bristles with an urgency lacking in most every other Matthews Band release; since its 1993 debut, the band has never rocked quite so hard, and Matthews at times sounds possessed. The amiable, meandering head-bobbing of the ‘90s and the tighter but sterile song structures of the last decade have been ditched in favor of an uncharacteristically direct attack. It’s as if the band finally figured out how to blend the strengths of the two eras: tauter arrangements, fiery ensemble interplay.
As one of the quintet’s cofounders, Moore helped shape a sound that blended funk, jazz and ethnic textures with Matthews’ rubbery acoustic tunes. At its best, the band suggested a ‘90s take on ‘70s progressive heroes such as Jethro Tull and Traffic; at its most banal, it rehashed Sting’s post-Police fusions of world music and pop. The quintet ascended to stadium-level status, consistently earning upward of $40 million annually on its summer tours while selling 31 million albums over 16 years.
But the band always had a hole in the middle of its sound. Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley loved to noodle, and Matthews’ mushy vocal style and acoustic guitar strumming weren’t enough to anchor the tunes. The rhythm section featured brilliant technicians in drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard who had little interest in propulsion. As a result, Matthews songs tended to wander, all about pretty colors but often lacking a central focus.
On “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King,” the major difference is felt as much as heard in a deeper, beefier bottom end. Matthews turns a potential throwaway phrase on “Squirm” --- “drum beats louder” --- into a mantra, and a hook. Fair warning. Beauford and Lessard swing the heaviest lumber of their careers. Electric, rather than acoustic, guitars also add weight. When Matthews’ falsetto vocal threatens to float away on “Seven,” he’s brought back to earth by the band’s newfound toughness.
The album is not without its flaws: Matthews can still be a frustratingly simple-minded lyricist when it comes to lust (“Shake Me Like a Monkey”) or a frustratingly mush-minded one when it comes to the state of the world (“Funny the Way It Is”). But his (failed) experiments in popcraft the last decade with producers Glen Ballard and Mark Batson have had some benefits: the songs are punchier, and Cavallo has given the band a bigger, more immediate sound.
Though the ensemble still flirts with exotic musical strains, they’re used judiciously. The Eastern accents on “Squirm” and the bluegrass banjo on “Alligator Pie” amp up the energy, rather than defuse it.
When “Time Bomb” goes off, Matthews’ voice nearly breaks. It’s his crisis of faith, an exhausted roar at the heavens. “I want to believe in Jesus,” he cries, as the music surges on the back of braying horns and a hammering Hammond organ.
After that moment, there’s nowhere to go but down. An acoustic reverie, “Baby Blue,” finds Matthews singing torn and frayed, couched in strings. He addresses what could be a lover, but it’s difficult not to hear it as a testimonial to his fallen bandmate: “Confess I'm not quite ready to be left ... You give, you give, to this I can attest.”