Published on September 27th, 2012 | by Phoenix0
DMB’s Latest Melds Two Halves of Their Career
Many bands, once they’ve been around awhile, usually undergo changes in their sound from one album to another. The Dave Matthews Band (DMB) certainly fits that description. Their latest album, Away from the World, reunites them with producer Steve Lillywhite, who worked on their first three studio albums (Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, and Before These Crowded Streets). After these three albums, the band tried to go into the studio to record a fourth with Lillywhite, but terminated their relationship with him in the middle of the sessions. It was then, many fans argue, that the band lost their way, transitioning to a sound that was far too commercial and failed to showcase the diverse sounds and instrumentation that DMB had to offer. Rather than being a strict shift back to their older sound, one can hear elements of both eras of the band’s history on Away from the World.
In DMB’s earlier days, their albums emphasized their talents as songwriters, and focused on crafting tightly written songs whose music and lyrics blended together well and stood out from each other. Songs such as “Ants Marching,” “Grey Street” (my personal favorite song of theirs), “The Space Between,” and “Crash Into Me” emphasized this trend. However, in the band’s last three albums (Stand Up, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, and this one), they have shifted more towards creating cohesive albums that flow together, and less on standout singles. While I personally enjoyed the songwriting focus more, there are positives to the album-oriented approach. For instance, you get sequences on the album like “Mercy,” “Gaucho,” and “Sweet,” where the lyrical themes flow into each other. “Mercy” talks of keeping faith and staying positive amid troubled times, and believing that they will change. “Gaucho” is a bit more resolved, telling listeners that “we gotta do more than believe to change.” “Sweet,” then, transitions to how someone feels when they emerge out of these aforementioned troubled times intact. “Belly Belly Nice” and “Belly Full” are two halves of a sweet, sexually tinged narrative. “Snow Outside” and “Drunken Soldier” also flow into each other musically, but appear to have little to do with each other lyrically. Despite the album-oriented approach though, some songs do have staying power on their own, such as “If Only,” “The Riff,” and “Drunken Soldier.”
DMB also made their reputation as a live band first and foremost, with many different musical influences. On many of their albums, one can hear how the studio’s less-than-organic environment makes the songs sound different, sometimes restricted. Some of the songs meander on in a jamming sort of way, and sometimes it feels artificial, while at other times (like the end of the album), it works pretty well. I think the only proper way to judge these songs on their merits is to hear them live, so I will be looking forward to any live recordings that will undoubtedly be released featuring these tracks (they’ve done so 49 times).
DMB also alternates between showcasing all of their instruments on songs like “Broken Things,” and “Belly Belly Nice” and taking a more minimalist approach, like the ukulele-sounding guitar part that is the only instrument playing through most of “Sweet.” I found myself preferring their more stripped-down style at times, as the instruments often jumbled together in the mix. However, each musician has their moments on the album, such as the beautiful classical-inspired violin solo Boyd Tinsley gives us at 2:11 of “Drunken Soldier,” and the great blending of sax player Jeff Coffin with Dave’s guitar in “Snow Outside.” Tinsley also has his more country-ish moments on the record, such as in “Broken Things.” Some instrumental moments in the album are just plain weird, though, like the end of “Gaucho” where dissonant instruments play over a track of Dave and a group of children singing together, and all over the song “Rooftop,” probably my least favorite on the record.
Overall, while I enjoyed Away from the World and how it blended the two eras of the band’s career, I don’t think it quite measures up to some of their previous efforts. The songs are good, and they show off the excellent musicianship of this band, however, I wish we had some more standouts. My favorite songs on this album, “If Only,” and “The Riff” don’t quite measure up to the band’s past hits in my mind. I do like that the album is more cohesive, but it doesn’t make up for the lack of standout songs in my mind. I’d give it a 7.5/1o.