The release of a new Dave Matthews Band album is always a high point on my musical calendar, but with such a legacy behind them, one can’t help but wonder if and when they will hit a creative peak. The untimely death of saxophonist Leroi Moore last year, a key part of their unique sound, only raised the stakes on their seventh studio album.
As it happens, there was no cause for concern. Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King is a burst of energy and a worthy addition to the DMB canon.
Fans still lamenting Matthews ‘going electric’ on Everyday will either abandon all hope, or be converted – this is the most plugged in DMB album to date. Both Matthews and Tim Reynolds contribute, their spiraling solos and classic rock riffs giving the band an edge we haven’t seen before. Nowhere is this more obvious than the ominous and distorted lines of "Squirm", an ominous, or the power chords and brass stabs that punctuate "Shake Me Like a Monkey". Producer Rob Cavallo has given DMB teeth, and they’re not afraid to use them.
Not that this is a rock album. "Alligator Pie" is another Cajun experiment, a joyous and jabbering banjo-led stomp. "Lying in the hands of God" is the other extreme, a pretty and poignant song that demonstrates Matthews’ more reflective side. “Save your sermons, for someone who’s afraid to love” Matthews croons over a web of acoustic guitar and polyrhythmic drumming. As always, there are some surprises, like the pent-up aggression of ‘Time Bomb’, which sees Matthews shredding his voice with a desperate last line of “I want to believe in Jesus”.
Lyrically, Matthews retreads some familiar themes, including the usual lecherous indulgences and brooding on mortality. Several songs touch on previous ideas, from running barefoot, the end of the world, monkeys, as if Matthews has been reviewing his back catalogue and summing up. The “I’m going to love you” refrain on "Seven" is lifted straight from "When the World Ends". The self-referencing seems fitting, especially alongside the songs that are expressly about late band member Leroi Moore, affectionately known as Groogrux. It gives the album a sense of tribute and continuity, even amidst the new directions.
Above all, Groogrux is a celebration, a positive collection that commemorates all that the band has achieved in the last 18 years, without ever harking back to past glories. Dave Matthews Band, with or without Moore, are still a massive musical force, still bursting with ideas. As Matthews puts it in ‘Why I am’: “still a snake in the woodpile”.