Is the best yet to come? Or has it already?
By Matt Yette
August 10, 2005
I came away from the March Stand Up listening party with a fire in my belly. Hearing new material early in the game was exciting enough; the entire night drove me to report to the site that - rest assured - the upcoming album was not Everyday Part Deux. I still hold that opinion...pretty much. Stand Up, by all means, is a good album. It's worlds above that 2001 offering, and although the collection of songs might have stood a little closer to fans' hearts on 2002's Busted Stuff, the studio product never quite lived up to what could have been. It seems that, as time has passed since the May 10 release of Stand Up, people have grown to be pretty comfortable with it. There isn't massive outcry among the fanbase as there was in 2001, and the ubiquitous "Is the band doomed?" discussions have largely been absent this time around.
The band is in trouble, folks. I'm not talking about album sales, performance energy, or even the general happiness of the band. By all rights, they're as happy and energetic as they've ever been, and the new songs are translating live fairly well, and evolving every night. I'm talking about the direction in which the band is headed compared to where they were nearly a decade ago. There is a point that I've used more than once while discussing my feelings on Stand Up with friends. The point is that it's unfair for any album to be compared to what is almost universally known as the band's pinnacle album, 1998's Before These Crowded Streets. I found myself becoming an apologist for any album that the band has put out in the last seven years. It became an excuse for me just not feeling an album, and a way to convince myself that what I was hearing was justified. Since Spring 1998, the band has put out three studio albums, and starting with Everyday, the band has lowered most of the fanbase's expectations to a level, that while still higher than most of the music heard on the radio today, falls alarmingly short of the magic that the band captured in the 90s. Perhaps the fact that this latest album is seven years removed from the band's apex contributes to its acceptance - people have short memories. The PR machine for the band naturally hails each step the band takes further away from the place they were at in 1998 as the "maturation" of the five musicians and their musical tastes. The truth of the matter is, they're so far behind where they were in 1994 that they might never catch up to what they once were if things aren't shaken up. Now, this will come off as fanboy-ish, but read on and I'll do my best to explain why I feel this way: The band needs Steve Lillywhite back, stat.
...Or somebody like him in the studio. Let's face it - there was one constant to the band's first three major label releases - Steve Lillywhite. That, and the fact that pretty much everybody loves the discs, new fans and old. Lillywhite is world-renowned for his work with such bands as U2 and The Rolling Stones, as well as DMB. However, it wasn't until their acrimonious split in 2000 that we learned just how much Steve Lillywhite meant to the creative process of the band. One of the marks of a great producer is creating something in the studio that is so rich and intricate, that you're hearing new things years after you first listened to it. BTCS is the perfect example of this. However, with a band such as DMB, it's just as, if not more, important to not overproduce the songs to the point where they are unable to be recreated in a live atmosphere. I think it's pretty obvious that the songs off BTCS are some of the hardest rocking songs the band performs live. The balance that Lillywhite was able to maintain in creating a recording that doesn't bore the listener yet stays true to the live experience is remarkable - and we haven't seen it since 1998. If I could use only one word to describe the band's studio product in the last seven years, I wouldn't even have to think about it: Lazy. Nowhere was this more evident than on Busted Stuff, a fan- and label-forced rendition of 2000's aborted Lillywhite Sessions. Many fans were satisfied to finally receive an official production of those famed sessions, $18.99 price tag and all. To me, and many others, you could literally hear the rushed nature of those sessions. It felt like the band wanted to get in, lay down the tracks with as few takes as possible, and get out. Even the most inspirational song to come out of those sessions, and arguably one of the top songs Dave has written in the past half-decade, You Never Know, has been largely hibernating since it's release. Many fans will argue that Dave Matthews Band is a live band, and that studio recordings are an afterthought. While it's hard to argue that the band is strongest anywhere but the stage, that's no reason to give them a pass in the studio. You only get one shot with an album release, and the songs the band writes can benefit so greatly from a well-produced album. But this isn't about live vs. album. The whole point I'm trying to make is that the recording process itself has much more of an influence on the band's creations that most believe.
From the fallout of the 2000 breakup of producer and band, we picked up a lot of peripheral details that otherwise would have been swept under the rug of typical album recording sessions. It's now no secret that Lillywhite is a demanding producer, and one that often requires many, many takes to capture just the right sound. For example, it is known that Bartender from the 2000 sessions had LeRoi laying down dozens of takes for his track. It is also no secret that the band grew tired of the laborious nature of recording with Steve Lillywhite, and now seems to be enjoying the relatively easy recording process with other producers. Where Lillywhite was simply being a good producer - looking for that perfect moment and capturing it forever - the band seemed to desire a less precise and looser feel from its work. Going back to Busted Stuff, where the band initially planned to self-produce the album, and then (ceremoniously) tagged chief engineer Steve Harris the producer, the band simply stopped allowing themselves to be challenged in the studio. The problem with this attitude is that when you don't demand the highest level from yourself, you tend to become content with material that isn't of the caliber you're capable of. Don't get me wrong - there are some good songs on Stand Up - but how many of them can you really call great? How many of you have listened to the album here and there, only to have it stack up underneath a pile of other stuff in your room? The longevity of an album is perhaps its greatest measurement of success, and the formula of the last seven years != longevity.
One of the virtues of the band's recent creative streak is its method of song writing - that is, noodle around while producer Mark Batson records, and then build off riffs that are caught when playing the tape back. Basically, the band is taking the Seinfeld approach to writing songs. 'What did you do today?' 'I Went to work and came home.' 'That's a show!' Except, when listening to the songs off Stand Up, there is one glaring omission that once drove nearly every song the band created - an amazing guitar lick. Lie In Our Graves, The Stone, So Much to Say, I could go on and on. I'm hard-pressed to name one song off Stand Up that contains a riff that identifies itself with the very characteristics that made DMB sound like DMB. In discussions about the band, I was told by a member of DMB's management that it's not completely out of the question that they might enlist Lillywhite to produce for them again. This alone is hopeful, in that at least it's an admission that the idea has been kicked around. The band simply needs someone who demands a taller effort for them to put out an album that's more than just a collection of off-the-cuff songs.
The recent revelation by Rolling Stone that the band will be re-entering the studio with Batson in early 2006 leaves me with mixed feelings. Like I said - Stand Up is a good album - but it's not great. It's probably their best album in the last seven years, but what does that really say? It's quite apparent that the band is happy with its current situation - and that's a good thing. An unhappy band wouldn't be a band much longer. However, I fear that for at least the forseeable future, we'll be listening to more music from this band while quietly asking ourselves in the back of our heads, "What happened to these guys?"
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