Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dave Matthews Band--Before These Crowded Streets

As many of my friends know, I have a longstanding disdain for Dave Matthews Band.  But after one of my buddies suggested, rather jokingly, I'm guessing, that I review DMB's 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets, I decided to take the challenge.  After all, I have not listened to a ton of Dave, and I figure it will be worth it for me to review music I don't love at first listen.  As you might expect, parts of Before These Crowded Streets were a pleasant surprise, but other parts recalled the reasons why I dislike DMB in the first place.

     One of my problems with Dave's music is that his songs often have a similar sound, with driving acoustic guitar punctuated with sax, fiddle and guitar lines.  Yet, to be fair, many of the best recording artists appeal because they have their own distinctive sound.  Therefore, it would be unfair of me to rip on Dave Matthews for developing his own musical voice.  Many of the tunes on Crowded Streets have this sound, and, after listening to the album, I found myself really enjoying it.  I got into the groove of his signature concert songs, especially the funky love song "Rapunzel," which, powered by an infectious guitar-sax-fiddle riff, gets the album off to a rip-roaring start.  Other highlights include the soul-filled "Stay (Wasting Time)," the sweet-sounding "Crush," and the album's slow syrupy closer, "Spoon," which includes a guest vocal by Alanis Morissette.  The stock Dave sound is not at all grating.  It is very pleasant, letting the listener relax and slide into a different world.  The brief opening track, "Pantala Naga Pampa," tells listeners to forget about the outside world and follow the music.  For much of the album, the listener can do just that.

     Matthews, while not a great musician on his own, surrounds himself with an excellent supporting cast.  The late LeRoi Moore is phenomenal on saxophone, with his "Rapunzel" solo being a particular highlight.  Violinist Tinsley, Electric Guitarist Reynolds, and Bassist Lessard all make great contributions on the album's jazz-inflected tunes.  Drummer Beauford, while somewhat repetitive in his playing and therefore a bit overrated, is nonetheless solid throughout.  The best tunes on Crowded Streets have lush instrumental arrangements that recall the "wall of sound" from great recordings like Springsteen's Born to Run or the Stones' Exile on Main St.  DMB also gets great guest appearances from musicians like Bela Fleck and Greg Howard, whose Chapman Stick makes "The Dreaming Tree" that much dreamier.  On much of the album, DMB makes the most of its prodigious musical ability.  It is easy to see from the album why the band has built its reputation on extended live improvisation.

     Yet despite all of the positives of Crowded Streets, the album falls well short of being a classic.  Again and again I think back to the request of the first track, "come and relax now, put your troubles down."  When listening to the album, there were parts when I could follow those instructions.  Yet, it was impossible to do throughout Crowded Streets, which is, in a word, uneven.  After the promise of "Rapunzel," four of the next five tracks descend into murky depths that are entirely unenjoyable.  Matthews tries to deviate from his typical style on this tracks, and he falls flat on his face.  "The Last Stop" sets off on an overbearing journey through India.  The next track is slightly better, but even Fleck's tasteful banjo work on "Don't Drink the Water" can't save the tune from catching cholera.  "Stay" provides a much-needed interlude before the album plunges back into the darkest depths of Daveism.  "Halloween" stands as the album's worst track, with a weird contribution from Kronos Quartet and Matthews' constant howling combining to create what can only be described as vampire music.  Mercifully, the band climbs back out of its satanic depths on "The Stone," which features a rapid-fire acoustic riff and furious fiddle work.  Nevertheless, the music remains foreboding, and it is not until the 30-second interlude at the end of the song, followed immediately by Lessard's "Crush" bassline, that the listener is saved from eternal musical damnation.

      After the two long, ethereal songs, "Crush" and "The Dreaming Tree," the listeners groans as DMB returns to darkness on "Pig."  This tune is not as irritating as the earlier hellish efforts, and it would work well if more of the album was truly transcendent.  However, seeing as Matthews has already rumbled through four tracks of darkness, "Pig" is an annoyance.  Fortunately, the band finishes on a high note with "Spoon," but it is not enough to keep the album from being musically schizophrenic.  Matthews leaves his mellow comfort zone on several tracks.  It sounds like Matthews took all sorts of worldly music and tried to stuff it into a few tracks.  There is nothing wrong with a musician drawing on outside sources of music, but he must do so subtly to avoid alienating listeners.  Matthews has no subtlety in his use of world music.  He simply slops it down in the middle of the album without any warning.  As a result, the album lacks a clear voice or pattern.  All great art involves risk, and Matthews took one with his heavy world sounds on Crowded Streets.  But a risk is only good if it is calculated and has an eventual payoff, and the risks on Crowded Streets are neither.  The result is simply a group of songs, some enjoyable, some not, cobbled together to create an album with no clear purpose.

      The lack of direction on Before These Crowded Streets is made even more intolerable due to Matthews' delivery of the material.  Unlike fellow mellow rockers Mraz and Mayer, Dave Matthews is not blessed with extraordinary vocal ability.  While his style is unique, his unusual vocal phrasing is overwrought and sometimes downright annoying.  It is passable and even catchy on his best tunes, but it is obnoxious on his worst tunes.  Furthermore, his vocals sound so calculated that they appear to be without much soul.  As a result, much of the album fails to be the spiritual experience that Matthews seeks.  Overall, the best vocals on the album come from female guests.  This makes it hard to trust Matthews to make great music for himself in other settings.

      Before These Crowded Streets is, at times, very successful.  Heavy instrumental tracks like "Rapunzel," "Crush," and "The Dreaming Tree" are beautiful, and they do a good job of capturing the live sound and feel that has made the band so famous.  DMB is not afraid to extend studio tracks over six minutes, and this lack of restraint is refreshing.  The album also tries to keep itself through a series of unique musical interludes between songs.  Yet for all of the good in BTCS, there is plenty of murk and muck to turn off non-fanatics.  Dave Matthews Band does very well within its own style, but they become insufferable when they veer off to darker musical themes.  Much of the music lifts you up, but other parts weigh the listener down like an anvil.  Ultimately, BTCS has its highlights, but it also has several songs that should be avoided at all costs.

Final Grade: B-

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