Is this a return to glory, or Everyday 2: The Gift and the Curse?
May 13, 2005
DMB write a quasi-grandiose pop odyssey filled with funky Americana, nostalgic innocence.
Make no bones about it. This album is nostalgic, but not for the days of Crash and Under the Table and Dreaming. Dave Matthews (Rhythm guitar), Le Roi Moore (Reeds and Whistles), Boyd Tinsley (Violins and Madolin), Stefan Lessard (Bass) and Carter Beauford (Drums and Percussion) have become very focused on picking up the best elements of song’s past and blazing a trail forward. Plus Producer Mark Batson’s (Maroon 5, Eminem) heavy involvement, from his obsessive “take-this-sample-and-run-with-it” songwriting methods or his incessant need to physically play something with the band as part of the creative process (check the album credits), yields a different DMB. The songs here are expertly crafted, factory tightened and polished as a brand new Hibachi grill. But they lack the multiple choruses, complex jazz/folk structures and the distinct highs and lows that longtime fans have come to expect from DMB’s composition. Matthews doesn’t string together near impossible lyrical lines as in “#41” and “The Stone” and last year’s new crop of meaty songs: “Crazy Easy”, “Sugar Will”, “Joy Ride” and “Hello Again”, are either absent or here in short order form. This may come as a disappointment to long time fans who are ardent to watch a lean “Two-Step” that still manages to top out at 9 minutes with no jamming (Boulder citizens, nod your heads.) But the good news is that everything about Stand Up feels gloriously new and bold, often unapologetically so.
Chalk it up to the album’s willingness to function as an ambiguous protest record that has a love affair with the love song whilst flirting with youth and previous innocence lost. “Smooth Rider” vaguely details Dave getting busted with his string-strumming hands in the wrong cookie jar during his early days as a macadelic, all in a fashion that is equal parts Baptist Soul and tripping-the-groove-porntastic. “Old Dirt Hill (Bring that Beat Back)” woos childhood memories of bike riding, first kisses and smokin under the bridge. “Dreamgirl” is exactly what many fans are expecting: the new “Where Are You Going?”, which was the new “Crash Into Me”: the vaguely perverse but always sweet radio-worthy love song that the boys have learned to churn out on command.
But when Stand Up isn’t reminiscing, it’s reprimanding, or at least lamenting current events in thinly veiled political statements and haunting textures. Matthews’ sepia-tinted Country Time paradise is threatened by the omniscient storm clouds produced by Gulf War II. “You Might Die Trying” warns of the sacrifice that may be required when moving stones for a cause, as Beauford lays a new wave break for Tinsley and Moore to stretch out on for the song’s outro. Meanwhile, the brilliant introductory track to “American Baby” juxtaposes string and piano arrangements fit for a motion picture score with swells of gunfire and Beauford’s snow-balling drum breaks, only to segueway into a masterful Lennon-esque love song for American innocence. Then the suite that is “Everybody Wake Up (Our Finest Hour Arrives)” and “Out of My Hands” again contrasts uptempo protest funk against the impending doom of Matthew’s gentle piano pounding and dismal vocal.
Elsewhere, Stand Up remains comfortable in it’s funk-rock excursions, even if Matthews remains cryptic and occasionally too caught up in the groove to make sense. The title track, arguably the album’s apex, takes off like so many raised hands in a Shaker worship ceremony but fails to bridge a subject matter gap between the verse and chorus. Album closer “Hunger for the Great Light”, musically illustrates what its like to dialogue with a local small town “dirty girl” in skanky, distorted 4/4 glory. And Matthews is sure to thank the Almighty and Infinite for her before song’s end. Then there’s tracks like “Hello Again” and “Louisiana Bayou” that both hint at homicidal thematics while shaking their melodic hips. “Hello Again” comes off as a radio-edited outtake that never reached final mixdown, which has an ironic charm seeing as how the song spent all last year and most of this one being a full-throated beast. Meanwhile, “Louisiana Bayou” sounds like a jam session that became a finished product the moment it was conceived, all ambling hooks, sassy solos and flamboyant choruses. This leaves Stand Up with “Stolen Away on 55th & 3rd” and “Steady as We Go” for it’s last breezy, 75 F ode to young love and fictional would-be High School Senior Class Song, respectively.
So DMB is writing political pop albums with pompous penchants for pert subject matter? And these records are doubling as the soundtracks we would play to remember our childhood summers the way we would prefer? It would seem so. But there is more at work here than meets the eye.
Stand Up is something of a paradox. The album is a cornucopia of fruits that came out of the Fall 04/Winter 05 sessions with Batson, the type of sessions that DMB find themselves in when song writing “the old way” (i.e. on the road or in the studio with little producer involvement) is moving too slowly for impatient fans or isn’t matching up to their present vision. Like Everyday before it, Stand Up was put together rather quickly from a sudden creative blast induced by the allowance of a producer to get intimately involved in the creative process. The difference here is that Batson didn’t sit down and write a song a day in exile with Matthews and then call in the rest of the band to play from charts during recording. Instead, Batson forced members of the group to wrap music around preferred licks made by individuals in the band. In this way, he put many of the songs in awkward starting points, but helped the band produce exceptional pieces of work in a short time. It also encouraged band members to pick up instruments that fans aren’t used to seeing them play. Tinsley took up the mandolin on “American Baby”. Matthews played piano on “Out of My Hands”. Lessard, looking like the Metrosexual twin to Tom Morello in the album’s documentary, laid down the primary electric lick for “Hunger for the Great Light”. And everyone sang. Everyone. What does it all mean? Stand Up is literally Everyday dressed up in Before These Crowded Streets’ clothing. There’s even substantial ground for saying that it’s the album Everyday should have been.
Be on the lookout. If this pattern continues, songs that got scrapped or B-Sided from last Spring’s pre-tour sessions could return along with new material that will develop on the road this year. The year 2007 might see DMB returning to the studio under Steven Harris’s supervision to produce Busted Stuff 2: The Blessed and the Damned.
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