What would you say? To a monkey in a tree?
I'm pretty sure that's how the tune goes, the first time I (and probably others) first remembered hearing the plainly named Dave Matthews Band. That song, "What Would You Say", was all over the radio. The barroom call and response gang chorus. That zippy harmonica solo. And an odd voice that seemed like a man struggling with a speech impediment, winsome with weird emphasis on the less obvious syllables. Over the next two years I would hear more DMB without realizing it, in the background at work or on the radio. It wasn't until a friend let me tape the first two albums off him that I found out how many songs I had heard. My wife became a bigger fan than me and we ended up getting a lot of DMBs albums.
Dave Matthews Band is a band that I like, but it's a more casual kind of like which should make this post interesting. I don't know a lot of trivia about the group and their music, just general stuff, and I wouldn't stake a lot of faith in the veracity of it. Still, I think it will be fun to sort through the DMB Cds I have blindly so I'm not going to look up any facts. I'm just going with what I think I know along with what I know I feel about their music.
Under The Table And Dreaming (1994)
When I heard a full Dave Matthews Band album (it was actually Crash) I thought it was pure genius. Having worked retail a lot, particularly in the '90's, I had heard a LOT of new age music. The natural instruments strumming and twittering and fluttering to a peaceful groove. It was very popular. And here was a group that put melody and some pulse to it yet retained that natural aesthetic. It could not miss. And it didn't. Their major label debut, Under The Table And Dreaming is my favorite of their discs. It has a lightness to it, maybe an innocence, that I felt faded with each successive release. The big hit "What Would You Say" is here of course. Other hits like the catchy "Ants Marching" and "Jimi Thing" were all over radio waves at that time. "Satellite" was a nice lilting slow song that was a precursor to "Crash Into Me" and I love that head bopping opener "The Best Of What's Around". Elsewhere on the album the group plays with dynamics whether it be softly ("Typical Situation") or more urgently ("Dancing Nancies") to strong effect. All of the groups elements play well, the dexterous rhythms, slashing violins and squirrely saxophone topped with Matthew's distinct voice. A really good album that reminds me of working and my first year of marriage in my 20s.
Crash was the first DMB album I had. I liked it and it contained my favorite Dave Matthews Band song, the hit "Too Much". It just works for me with it's high speed jittery groove and clattering percussion while Dave Matthews lists off the things that are just...too much! The other hit, "Crash" or later called "Crash Into Me", has become a modern standard of sorts and dominated adult contemporary for years. Pretty impressive for a song whose lyrics say something about asking for a skirt to hike up so a girl could "show your world to me". Much of this disc sounds good yet only a handful of songs stick in my head past playback. Hearing today I noticed how much Matthews likes childhood rhymes and onomatopoeia in this one ("Crash", "I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal", "monkey see monkey do", "Splish splash") which gives a sort of idiot savant effect. Fond memories of listening to this in the car while driving with my wife around this time though. The hits anchor a solid follow up to Table, the arrangements seem a little denser and the last part of the disc is a slightly darker in tone than their debut. A hint of what was to come.
Before These Crowded Streets (1998)
Often pointed to by critics as their best album, I can't say I feel the same about it. Becoming increasingly dark and dense, after the relatively happy sounds of the first two CDs this overplayed its take-me-seriously vibe for me. Fusing what I think are middle eastern melodies with their trademark limber grooves was a clever touch. And some of the brighter moments like "Stay (Wasting Time) and the jazzy "Crush" are terrific. The arrangements were more expansive allowing for the DMB to cut loose and add texture with a touch of dissonance, by many rights this is a very good disc. What didn't work for me is that some of the seriousness is overdone, like on the gargling vocal for "Don't Drink The Water". "Halloween"? Matthews tries for desperation but sounds like a man stuck in an elevator desperately trying to make it to the toilet on the next floor before it's too late. And longer instrumental breaks means a sacrifice in pop pleasure. The band's playing showed progression though, they come across even more supple and virtuosic than before - no doubt cementing their status as THE jam band of the 90's (though I'm sure fans of other groups like Phish would dispute that claim).
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds - Live At Luther College (1999)
Dave Matthews unplugged? Is that possible, isn't his band more or less unplugged already minus the bass guitar? It turns out his songs could be stripped down more, pairing up with guitarist Tim Reynolds, Dave Matthews shows that his songs aren't just new age novelties by doing them with just acoustic guitars. This is a very good double CD with Matthews committed performance keeping together the structure while Reynolds solos all over like a madman. All of the various moods of Matthews shines in this setting. Too bad when I saw these two live at a Bridge School Benefit concert Matthews was in poor condition (he had a frog voice he said came from too much partying) which made hearing their performance of these arrangements a disappointment. Although Tim Reynolds kicked major ass that night. I'm still hooked on their rendition of "Tripping Billies". For some reason I think my wife lost interest in Dave Matthews after this album (which I remember her liking), the ones we got afterwards were picked up by me. I'll have to ask her what happened.
The Lillywhite Sessions (2001)
Controversy doesn't hit DMB often (except for that time they inadvertently dumped their crap from a bus onto a boat below) so there was a lot of talk when recording stalled while recording with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite. At this point, I can't remember what caused the sessions to fail. Bootlegs abounded of these sessions. The recordings do sound unfinished, which makes it even more of a curio (the vocals are dry, the drums way up front with the other instruments pushed down in the mix). The songs from these sessions seem very sad with Matthews yearning, moaning and moping to slow grooves. Many of the lyrics refer to rain and death and other hints of a cloudy day in Matthew's mood. It's almost funeral in parts (I'm listening to the ten minute dirge "Bartender" right now) and stands in stark contrast to the bulk of their recordings. The Lillywhite Sessions may have been the most famous ditched recording since Prince's Black Album. And like Prince, the unreleased album was shelved in favor of a sunny, happy sounding disc.
When a talented band stretches out musically on record the next album often finds that same band tightening their belts. True to form, Dave Matthews Band reined in the arrangements from Before These Crowded Streets to emphasize pop song craft on Everyday. The renewed focus makes for their most disciplined album, the most traditional pop I've heard them do. DMB was rewarded with hits that would become VH1 classics (that now probably play on VH1 Classic). The scrambling "I Did It" I liked a lot and reminded me a little of "Too Much". "The Space Between" was another smash ballad for DMB in the same vein as "Crash Into Me" or "Satellite". And the loping title track had a warmth and lightness rarely seen since Under The Table And Dreaming. Beyond the hits, "So Right" heady hook stuck and the rest passes by pleasantly. Overall just an OK album for me, it plays almost like a solo album as the group is straight jacketed into providing accents to Matthew's tunes instead of enhancing them. At the time of release I liked it much more.
Busted Stuff (2002)
Like a scab that don't feel right until it's picked, Dave Matthews and Band returned to the songs abandoned from the Lillywhite Sessions. Given the additional time, the songs are tighter and more developed than the bootlegged recordings. It strikes a better balance between the mope and the tuneful coming across less whiny. No more lengthy moaning to a slow marching beat. Having said that, this is the DMB album I remember the least. I played it a lot (as I find I do with each one of their albums I get) and still can't recall much. The meditative single "Where Are You Going" (not from the Lillywhite Sessions) I remember liking. Also the instrumental "Kit Kat Jam" was a favorite track from this album. Listening to the Band be more involved with the music as opposed to the production heavy Everyday was nice too. But compared with the dragging depression from the Lillywhite Sessions, the music is less distinct even while it is more listenable. Did bootlegging hurt the reaction to Busted Stuff? Maybe. But the bootlegs showed a side to the band not seen elsewhere in their catalog, even if I wouldn't want to hear it often. (though I should note I haven't listened to their new disc yet, dedicated to their late saxophonist LeRoi Moore).
Dave Matthews - Some Devil (2003)
I don't have this album and haven't heard anything from it other than the single "Gravedigger", a song that didn't do much for me. Well, to be honest I hated it. So I don't have anything to say about this. Maybe I'll give this disc a chance some time if I spot it in the $3.00 bin. Combined with Busted Stuff this is the more fallow period for me personally, I wasn't digging his stuff as much.
Stand Up (2005)
DMB hooked up with a hip hop producer I think, if I remember right. At any rate, there's a definite focus on beats with Stand Up. There's also a return to the happy go lucky feeling they are great at (and may be why I didn't respond to Busted Stuff or "Gravedigger"). Singles "American Baby" and "Dreamgirl" both had hooks and uncluttered arrangements that shone brightly. The haunted ballad "Out Of My Hands" was a favorite of mine. "Old Dirt Hill (Bring That Beat Back)" also contained a smooth melody and sense of reverie. There seemed to be a mild political slant to the songs, "American Baby Intro" and "Everybody Wake Up (Our Finest Hour Arrives) paint a picture of pending chaos (the songs remind me of the Iraq War and suicide bombers) that people should "Stand Up" to. Some of the pop discipline of Everyday returns just not to the point that band members get squeezed out of their share of time. This also had Matthew's hookiest writing since that 2001 effort, many of the tunes are memorable and fun. I liked this album a lot and played it often in 2005 on the way to work, a car stereo favorite.
Dave Matthews Band released a new CD this year I have yet to check out, Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King which is supposed to be pretty good. I'll get around to nabbing it sooner or later. I did get the free download of the first single (which means I get like a newsletter every week of what Dave Matthews does now) and "Funny The Way It Is" was ok. After spending a day listening to DMB, I think I like them a little bit more and will play them more often.