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Busted Stuff

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Busted Stuff by the Dave Matthews Band. Yeah, fine, I’m about a month late in writing a review of this record. The thing is, it’s taken me about this long to get enough of a read on this record to say anything halfway coherent.

The Dave Matthews Band is one of the great instrumental outfits around, especially if you agree with the prescription of some forgotten reviewer, who suggested that Matthew’s singing is best regarded as another instrument. Pay attention to just the sound, not the meaning of the words, and the songs are lovely, but think too much about what the words mean, and you risk being distracted from the tune by the fact that, well, Matthews isn’t any great shakes as a lyricist. There are exceptions to this rule, of course– the sweetly sodden “Grace is Gone” is good both lyrically and musically, and may be the best combined effort they’ve managed– but by and large the lyrics tend to read badly and are redeemed only by Matthews’s often otherworldy voice.

In terms of the singing, though, this record is relatively restrained. I don’t know if this is a creative choice, or if Matthews has started to lose some of his vocal range through constant touring and the hard drinking that forms such a big part of the back story of this album. Most of the songs seem to be sung in a slightly lower register than those on past albums, and also tend not to swoop dramatically from one end of his range to another. For the most part, they still work, but an unfortunate side effect of this is that they tend to sink into an undifferentiated mass. It’s an album that’s easy to listen to (distinct from “easy listening,” thank you very much), but hard to separate into individual tracks. Hence the long lead time needed to write about it. Even now, there’s a block of three songs (“You Never Know,” “Captain,” and “Raven”) in the middle of the album that I couldn’t begin to identify.

The songs that do stand out are mostly very good, though. “Grace is Gone” might be the best track on the album, but “Digging a Ditch,” “Where Are You Going,” and the title track are all solid. “Grey Street” is as close as they can really come to “rocking,” but subject to the “sound, not words” rule above, is a good tune. The only distinctive misfire is “Bartender”– saying this is sure to draw the ire of the jam-band faithful, but its desperate straining for Significance (“Bartender, please, fill my glass for me/ with the wine you gave Jesus that set him free/ after three days in the ground”) is reminiscent of the worst psychadelic twaddle of the Doors and the Grateful Dead, and the music can’t distract me from the godawful lyrics.

(Having mentioned them in a Dave Matthews review, it’s worth a brief aside about the Grateful Dead and jam bands in general. I like a lot of Grateful Dead material, subject to one simple rule: they were a great band, when they played songs, and even when they strung long instrumental passages together to get from one song to another (the usual “China Cat Sunflower/ I Know You Rider” combo being a good example) but the free-form, experimental, “Derek Smalls on the bass– he wrote this” improvisational stuff was, for the most part, unlistenable crap. And it was lousy because they forgot what, to my mind, is one of the key rules of improvised music: you can’t all improvise at once.

(Most really great improvisational music takes place within certain constraints– when Miles Davis or John Coltrane were making it up as they went, the drummer wasn’t. Somebody in the band needs to bear the responsibility for keeping time, and keeping everybody else in the same ballpark. The completely free-form thing produces occasional moments of brilliance, but only for those brief instants when the whole band happens to wander into the same time signature, or integer multiples thereof. So you get snippets of song emerging from a long mass of material that sounds like the output of five different people in neighboring apartments playing one part of a song they’re listening to on headphones. Hence the correlation between the ingestion of massive quantities of drugs and hard-core Dead fandom…

(I haven’t been subjected to as many live Dave Matthews tracks as I have Dead bootlegs, but for the most part, Matthews and his band seem to realize this. When they “jam,” the rhythm section mostly plays it straight, or failing that, Matthews keeps time himself (he plays more like a rhythm guitarist anyway). The results are a lot better than the Grateful Dead “jams” I’ve heard (and the “Kit Kat Jam” on this record is a decent enough tune)– Matthews runs afoul of a couple of other Grateful Dead Rules (“Songs reaching for Cosmic Significance tend to suck” and “Jam bands don’t ROCK”), but this aside is nearly the length of the rest of the review, so I’ll shut up now…)

All in all, this is a much better effort than their previous album, and probably better than Before These Crowded Streets as well. The only flaw is that, as noted above, the individual songs don’t really jump out at you as songs in their own right. But then, I’m not sure that’s really what I’m looking for from the Dave Matthews Band– realistically, this album is pretty much exactly what I’m looking for from them. If you already like the band, well, you don’t need me to tell you to buy this. If you didn’t like them before, you won’t like them now, so save your money.

(Looking at the fine print in a BlogCritics email, I see that I’m contractually obligated as a wannabe reviewer to note that this album grew out of the famous “Lillywhite Sessions” demos that were circulated on the Internet for a couple of years. As I’ve never heard those versions of the songs, I can’t say anything useful about the comparison, but there’s your obligatory review factoid…)

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About Chad Orzel

  • Constance Wickiewicz

    I am simply looking for a Dave Matthews band mouse pad. Can’t find one anywhere. Could ou direct me to a place?