Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King: The Review
By Matt Yette
Since 1998's Before These Crowded Streets, Dave Matthews Band has released three studio albums, each with an increasing crescendo of fanfare and hype. While it isn't difficult finding fans of any of these three projects, apprehension among the fanbase grew with each release, as they were all generally regarded as not up to the quality of the the "Big 3", or 1994's Under the Table and Dreaming, 1996's Crash, and 1998's BTCS. It is understandable then, that Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King represents the band's most important album in the last decade, and due to all the circumstances surrounding it, perhaps the most important album of their career. Expectations - no, demands - for an album have never been so high, and with LeRoi Moore's passing last August, it would be no surprise to anyone that the band was under an immense amount of pressure to put out the best product possible.
Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King represents Dave Matthews Band's return to greatness. After more than three years of various studio sessions, with multiple producers, directions, and band members, the final product is the most eclectic mix the band has produced yet, and drips of attitude and swagger throughout its 14 tracks. The gorgeous Grux begins the album, a clear tribute to their fallen saxophonist, and the statement track of the disc, Shake Me Like a Monkey, provides a violent and abrupt notice that this effort is different. Besides being the hard-hitting, energetic monster that should open shows for years to come, Shake Me says much more than just what Dave sings in wide vocal range during the song. This is a wake up call, not only for the fans, but for the band as well. The energy and confidence they exude as they rip through the heavily sexual lyrics with sharp horns and blaring electric guitars shows that this record was made with a purpose, and tells the listener to pay attention; they will not be mailing this one in.
The first radio single, Funny the Way It Is, has generally been very well received by fans, and is placed well early on in the tracklist. With a catchy, sing-along hook and lyrics that conjure up images of sunny days and fire trucks, it's a welcoming invitation to casual fans to check out the rest of the album. The record's first slower paced song, Lying in the Hands of God, begins with LeRoi setting the tone for the track. Dave interweaves haunting, harmonized vocals with Moore's previously recorded licks. Tim Reynolds shows up on the sitar on the song, but while the music holds its own, it largely stays out of the way of the beautiful vocal work. This song lingers with you even after you've put the album away for the night. For sure one of the masterpieces on the disc. Perhaps the album's most blatant tribute to Moore, Why I Am oddly stands out as one of its lone disappointing cuts. The song in itself is energetic, playful and clever, giving repeated tribute to "the GrooGrux King," but the final version of the song is lacking. Hearing the song live has no doubt contributed to this fact, as it is a total crowd pleaser, but lacks a certain punch and energy on the record.
Dive In opens in the vein of Coldplay, with a slow, melodic piano run, giving way to Dave in short order. In the six slot, it offers a breather from the relatively fast pace of the first half of the disc. At this point, it's pretty apparent that double-tracking Matthews' vocals will be the way forward on the album. Temporarily departing from that trend, however, is Spaceman, a gentle frolic through a Mardi Gras-inspired ("All the freaks are on parade/Thought I saw a Spaceman tryin' to get laid") love song. The melody is driven by Dave's vocals, with a catchy chorus lamenting on how everybody deserves the good life, before returning to constant praise of his lover's love for him. Danny Barnes lends his banjo playing to the track.
Dave Matthews Band has previously had success with middle eastern-sounding tracks (Minarets, The Last Stop, What You Are), and Squirm once again shows their chops in the style. Snake-charmer saxophone and dark tones provide the backdrop to what quickly reveals itself as a monster of a song, with inspired lyrics and a full orchestra providing support. A heavy dose of death-related themes further brings this song into the depths of darkness, and only serves to add to its grittiness. Quite possibly the deepest gem on the album, Squirm is a quick turnaround from the light-hearted Spaceman. Alligator Pie, heavily featuring Barnes' playing as well as Dave's daughter Stella's pleas to "put me in a song," serves as more of a bayou-drenched jam session than a straightforward song, and that's a good thing. Rather than searching for lyrical meaning in this tune, you simply have to stop thinking and groove to it, all the way through to it's drastic slowdown moments, where you can't help but move no matter where you sit. Carter has never had a stronger album in terms of energy and power in his drumming. If this album is a bus, Carter Beauford is driving it, and he's doing 140.
Without pause, Seven cuts in with a heavy electric riff from Reynolds, and quickly drops into the unorthodox 7/8 time signature that the band has visited on more than one occasion (The Dreaming Tree, Fool to Think). While it might be the most musically adventurous song on the album, they once again manage to tame the beast and brilliantly weave a hopping vocal track around the complex guitar melody. Sex again plays a major role in Dave's lyrics for the tune, as he sings about still tasting you on his fingers, and he won't be washing his hands any time soon. Kinky. Time Bomb, another bright spot on an album filled with stars, slinks around in the grass with a light and slow pace for the first half of the song before building up and eventually exploding (no pun intended) into a screaming plea from Dave of his desire to believe in Jesus. It's clear that his voice cannot handle the stress he's putting it through, and that's the best part about it. Rather than tame and write in a more reachable range, he decides to go all out, perfect or not. That kind of raw emotion and honesty is what has separated this album from their last three efforts.
Baby Blue takes a cue from one of Dave's solo tracks, Sister, in its main riff. In what could be considered one of the more traditional-sounding Dave Matthews Band songs on the album, Dave's voice hangs out alone, raw and emotional, while once again an orchestra provides the backdrop to this percussion-less song. You & Me, the album closer, also lives on the acoustic side of the fence, providing a soft ending counting the loud, in-your-face beginning we were greeted with. Carter is back after the one-song hiatus, providing the relatively soft tune with chorus backing. After a short pause, the album has a simple jam between Dave, Carter and LeRoi to finish things off, with Roi's saxophone being the first and last thing you hear on the album.
In reviewing Dave Matthews Band albums, there has been a BC/AD complex, with BTCS and albums before being unofficially inducted into the fan hall of fame, while anything released in the last decade has fallen far short of expectations. At this early point in Big Whiskey's existence, its permanent place in DMB album history has yet to be determined. However, with its wide mix of sonic explorations, inspired writing, and most of all, the obvious effort put into this album, should grant it consideration to turn the "Big 3" into the "Big 4." Any band would be hard pressed to create a better send off for their fallen brother than this album, and Dave Matthews Band put their heart and soul into what will be an iconic album for the band. This is the best DMB album in over a decade, with the chops to hold its own against any other disc they've put out. And if nothing else, that's a reason for any fan to celebrate. Your band is back.
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