Away From The World: The Review
By Matthew Yette
September 17, 2012
Away from the World, the new album from Dave Matthews and The Band, has just hit the streets. No, I haven't lost my mind and forgotten the name of the band for which this site exists. Quite the contrary; this album is simultaneously one of the great musical accomplishments for the band, as well as a near solo showcase for Dave himself. Read on past the break for a more in depth look.
Even before the release, we knew that AFTW would mark the reuniting of DMB and Steve Lillywhite for the first time since 1998's Before These Crowded Streets. That's 14 years (12 if you count the aborted Lillywhite Sessions) for a band that just celebrated it's 20th year together. DMB has been Lillywhite-less for over twice as long as they worked with him. I've made no secret about my feelings on the topic (link); if the band was to once again reach the pinnacle of their potential in the studio, it would have to be with Steve Lillywhite. There's no need to rehash the "Big 3"; Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash and BTCS are universally hailed by DMB fans around the world, and the question for many was, "Will AFTW make it the Big 4?" My review of Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King included that album with the first three; that I won't back off from. BW was an extremely important album for the band, and I do believe they delivered in what had to be one of the most trying times of their collective careers. Taking the general pulse of the community, however, has shown that BW never was held up with the first three efforts, and that elusive 4th was still to be seen.
In a way, I think the absence of Lillywhite up to this point has given fans an opportunity to say, "Yeah, it was a good album, but." We never knew if certain songs with Steve would have turned out differently, but we all wondered what if. With AFTW, there are no more excuses. We know what this band is capable with Lillywhite; if the album fell short, it would be a legitimate question to ask just how much creativity the band had left in the tank.
I've always been a big fan of opening tracks to an album. They're extremely important in grabbing the listener and preparing them for what's to come. Shake Me Like a Monkey was an awakening; if that didn't, well, shake you like a monkey, then nothing would. Broken Things (remind anyone else of "Busted Stuff"?) continues the band's penchant for starting an album off right. Right away you get a sense of what's to come; a strong horn section, Dave's incredible vocal creations, and lots and lots of Boyd. How enjoyable is singing along to the chorus on this song? "Alllllllllll my love, my heart is, set on you…" I'll come back to it later on in the review, many times actually, but this is but the first example on the disc that Dave is very much front and center.
Very few bands do uptempo as well as DMB, and Belly Belly Nice could be one of the most enjoyable songs since Too Much. Once again, Dave shines with his chorus vocals, stretching out that first note that you can't hope to replicate without jerking your neck upward. Boyd is again all over this one, with an especially strong and vintage performance coming out of the bridge. BBN also contains what might be one of the most overtly sexual (and revolting) lyrics yet: "Gonna eat your belly jelly till the kingdom come." I'll allow you to check urbandictionary in case you're curious about what that means. Got it? Sufficiently grossed out? Good. This is one of the last up tempo moments we'll find on the album, though, as the next track begins a very mellow and reflective journey.
As the album progresses, you get a feeling that Dave is growing more and more depressed about the state of the world. While he seems to dance around hopelessness at times, he doesn't do so without pleading for an alternative. Mercy seems to speak to that defeated nature, with a last gasp at carrying on "just a little bit longer." It also is the first track that really hints to the listener that this is very much a Dave Matthews showcase. His vocals are a major feature. Jeff Coffin's first full effort with the band in studio is certainly not wasted here, either. Even his simple licks are absolutely gorgeous, as evidenced by the tail end of Mercy. However downtrodden Mercy seems, Gaucho is as close to a direct response as you can get. It is not without it's pessimism, however. If anything, it's a combination of frustration that more is not actually being done to fix our problems, and encouragement to do so. The bridge that features a heavy fuzz bass from Stefan really drives this home, with Dave practically begging us to "please wake up." We're brought to the end serenaded by children, driving home the message by invoking the generation that our decisions will ultimately affect the most. It's a touch direct; there's not much room for interpretation, but is powerful all the same.
Gaucho segues into Sweet with the sounds of the outdoors, and we get one of our first tastes of the light at the end of the tunnel. Once again, this song is practically Dave solo, with just him and his ukelele for the first 3/4 of the song. A gorgeous lullaby greets us with an actual result for not giving up. For as musically simple as this song is, the half-time transition that takes place when the remainder of the band joins in serves as a true highlight on the album.
It's worth noting that even though Dave is featuring so much in these tracks, that certainly doesn't mean the rest of the band didn't bring it. The Riff is evidence of this, even though the early parts of the song once again establish Dave as the primary vehicle behind the tune. It's a slow build that ultimately gets carried across the finish line with some of the strongest band work yet. It's also the most heavily produced track thus far, using an electric voice effect at the tail end of a long held note by Dave, as well as some sonar pings. Yes, really. Tim Reynolds really shows up on this track, laying down a strong lick that the band follows with power to the end.
Belly Full is, you guessed it, a true Dave solo track, and the shortest on the set. I can definitely hear this track closing out an album, but in AFTW's case, I'm glad it didn't. More on that later, though. I'm typically not a fan of the "guy with a guitar" sound but it clearly works on this song. We also see Dave being temporarily distracted with the theme of love, which seems to be his way of coping with his disappointments with the state of things. It's definitely his way of getting "Away from the World."
If Only is one of the strongest tracks on the album, despite its relative simplicity. The beat is reminiscent of a sped up Don't Drink the Water, but the tone of the two songs couldn't be further apart. If Only explores Dave's selfishness in love, hoping to not only have the girl he wants, but to have her exactly how he wants her. It's a pining we've seen take shape in different ways in the past, from Say Goodbye, to Rapunzel, all the way to Seven. Once again though, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, Dave is completely in control of this song from the start. His vocal melody drives the entire tune, and the mellow backing from the band compliments it perfectly.
If the next track, Rooftop, strikes you as completely out of place at first, you wouldn't be alone. The opening riff is a cross between Dreams of our Fathers and Fool to Think, so you'll excuse me for uttering "oh, no" the first time I heard it. It smooths out quickly, though, into a powerful chorus. It's not similar to Hunger for the Great light musically, but for some reason I want to make that comparison between the verses. The one very high point of the song is Rashawn's layers towards the end of the song. It takes a powerful chorus and absolutely takes it to the next level.
Tim's Rashawn's solo out of the inspired bridge really turns the tempo up into one of the best finishes on the album. Notice I said one of the best. We're almost there.
Snow Outside once again leans very heavily on Dave's vocals, but even more so on a very nice riff of his. It's an extremely mellow song, almost lulling you into a false sense of relaxation at the album's penultimate moment. Almost. The band crescendos to a Last Stop-like finale of this tune, with everyone getting a piece of the frantic action until finally coming back down into a waning chant. Heavy footsteps in the background paint a picture in your mind of a hunter coming back into his log cabin after a snowy night out. It's one of those production cues that add another dimension to the music.
Then begins Drunken Soldier, the final track on the album. As good as an album I thought Big Whiskey was, I thought it ended very poorly. Just as an opening track is meant to make a statement, the same can be said for your final act. What can I say; relatively speaking, Drunken Soldier is a landmark for Dave Matthews Band. It starts off with a foot stomping banjo-esque interlude that makes you think, "What am I listening to?" but quickly transitions into what is one of the most powerful intros the band has ever written. I believe the comparison to Two Step is both accurate and deserved. Boyd splits the intro into two with some of his most beautiful work on the album, almost as a way to give the listener a breather before the intro picks back up before the first verse. This band has matured. The confidence that oozes from this track, and throughout the entire album all culminates with this, and it is a pitch perfect send off. Dave practically pleading with us not to waste time pretending; to own who you are and "take your shot." As powerful as both the vocals and the music is on this song, the most stunning part of it all might be the final four minutes. From all the intensity comes one of the most chill pieces of music the band has ever written. It's Pink Floyd meets The Beatles. If the album went on another 15 minutes with this groove, I would be even happier. The outro just screams confidence; the laid back approach to this music is exactly what gives it its beauty. This one could be an absolute monster live.
If I have one critique, it would have to be the overall depth of the lyrics; there just isn't much here to sink your teeth into. The few messages that are delivered are done so on a platter, without much in the way of subterfuge. There are some gems, namely in The Riff, but overall, while AFTW is clearly the band's best work since BTCS, no one will be comparing the quality of the lyrics in those two albums.
The Dave Matthews Band fan base is a fickle bunch. Even well received songs are typically heavily debated and near-universal support hasn't really shown up for anything since BTCS. That's changed in a big way; the fan reaction to Away from the World is overwhelmingly positive. It's also extremely well deserved; AFTW is a monster. How much of this is due to the re-inclusion of Steve Lillywhite is anyone's guess. The numbers, however, are hard to argue with: four album produced, four masterpieces. There is just something he is able to extract from DMB that no other producer has quite been able to wrangle. No matter; the reviews are in, AFTW is a hit, it's due to debut at #1 for the band's record sixth release in a row. More than twenty years in, and Dave Matthews Band is still capable of creating something like this.
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