Let’s remember one thing: it’s only rock and roll. Sure, this is Matthews’ big departure — sculpted, scrubbed, and plucked to seduce elusive retail markets in faraway lands. As you might recall, the contemplative Virginian was in a serious slump before a sympathetic A&R man hooked him up with hitmeister Glen Ballard.
Now, Matthews is out of his funk, and the album has pushed its way to platinum. In that sense, think of Ballard’s participation as career spinach: it’s probably a good thing, despite a slightly gritty aftertaste.
Personally, I prefer skipping the first four songs. That way, I can ignore them as much as they ignore vocal or instrumental melody, excepting the chorus of “The Space Between”. A chilly sound, next to no sax anywhere, and no violin at all … it’s practically a Dave Matthews solo EP.
‘So Right’ … Is
After that, “So Right” hits a rare balance of incorporating the new (Ballard’s economy, Dave’s electric guitar) and old (ensemble aesthetic) into a single recording. With an elevating chorus, a wicked riff, and Leroi Moore’s top horn work, it belongs at the start of a show, and it belongs on the radio.
Cousin to “Minarets”, the pulsing “What You Are” proves Matthews can write compelling lyrics when he doesn’t write them on studio time: “Hoping to God on high is like clinging to straws while drowning / Oh, realize, realize what you are. / … Don’t you know that when you live life, / Then you become what you are.”
Later, “Sleep To Dream Her” delivers a yearning vocal and their previously trademark musical gear-changing. “Fool To Think” sports more ace work from the rhythm section, even if it’s countered by a choppy rhythm guitar bit straight out of the later Van Halen catalog.
The Dave Matthews Band has made albums before, but this time, Matthews and Ballard used members of the Dave Matthews Band to make an album.
DMB’s songwriting did need to tighten up by becoming more of a songwriter process again and less of a band process. But that didn’t have to mean creating an album of radio edits, or repeatedly asking Boyd Tinsley to sit out in favor of Ballard’s synth strings. I guess Euro radio doesn’t play six-minute songs. Or like the violin.
This music isn’t bad, compared either to today’s rock or Before These Crowded Streets. However, by ditching band interplay and deploying a two-consul rule strong enough to make Becker and Fagen proud, Matthews and Ballard washed out the sonic palette that makes the group distinctive.
The Dave Matthews Band has made albums before, but this time, Matthews and Ballard used members of the Dave Matthews Band to make an album. That’s a big, and kind of depressing, difference. On one hand, at least Matthews managed to get himself out of the doldrums; after all, it is only rock and roll. On the other hand, only rock and roll is a step back for musicians like these.
(This is another review from a batch of recently unearthed articles that I wrote for the Music Monitor in 2000-2001.)