Review Summary: DMB try to find their footing after a decade of directionless wandering. They get halfway home.
The Dave Matthews Band is no stranger to extended breaks. The four years that have passed since their last album, Stand Up, is not unexpected. This is a band that loves life on the road, touring relentlessly, feeding off the energy of the crowd. They have never been able to translate that same hunger into their recorded work, which has largely been underwhelming, considering the talents of those involved. While many may hate the music they create, none can deny the abilities of each member of the band. Dave Matthews is, with his unusual form, a one of a kind player. Accent players LeRoi Moore and Boyd Tinsley are solid players on the violin and sax, respectively. But the heart of the band has always been in the rhythm section, where Stefan Lessard and Carter Beauford conjure up rhythms that any other pop band would be afraid to even think about. Lessard has the fluid tone and style of a jazz bassist, while Beauford is the most experimental drummer to ever grace the radio airwaves. The texture of his playing is stunning, his beats easily identifiable as his alone, but never overpowering the song.
Big Whiskey is the last document of the Dave Matthews Band as it has been, as saxophone player LeRoi Moore passed away during the recording of the album. His parts, already finished, adorn the album in every crevice, a somber reminder of the nuance and personality his instrument gave the band's sound. Even before his passing, this was a band in search of an identity. After the massive success of Before These Crowded Streets, the band was at a loss as to where they wanted to go. The band scrapped the material they had written, which became the now legendary bootleg, The Lillywhite Sessions, turning to pop producer Glen Ballard to make Everyday. The album sold well, and produced the band's biggest radio hit, but was a disappointment to fans. The rerecorded Lillywhite material, dubbed Busted Stuff, was better, but still criticized for not being the Lillywhite versions. They followed with Stand Up, an uninspired album that Matthews himself is not happy with.
Big Whiskey is the band's latest attempt to figure out their identity, and it is yet another statement that they have no identity. The album dips into the band's past, taking cues from every era of the career, forging no new ground. The band even brings guitarist Tim Reynolds back into the fold, who was a key piece of the sound of their classic records.
Looking to the past, and making efforts to recreate the sound of their past can do little to overcome the problem that the band has: their songwriting. What started out as a bar band that took over the world has become a machine, pumping out songs for the purpose of recording, not because they have something important to say. The lack of enthusiasm is apparent throughout the record, as songs are pieced together with little effort given to the arrangements. "Shake Me Like A Monkey" opens the record after a short sax solo with a slinky electric guitar riff, adding a sly melody in the chorus. "Funny The Way It Is" follows, a scattershot attempt at a hit single. The song rotates three sections, all highly melodic, but incompatible. The making of a good song are there, but the work was not put in to polish the ideas.
That lack of effort is the dominant theme to the record. Dave's lyrics, never his strong suit as a musician, have not evolved at all. Still singing lines that make little sense, his lyrics drag on like a train wreck. His words are not poetic, nor are they meaningful. The fact that one of the songs is titled "Alligator Pie (Cockadile)" illustrates the level he is working on. But it is not just his words that have simplified. The musical backdrop he delivers them over has as well. While the band's best songs were always complex tapestries woven by the interplay of a group of highly skilled musicians, the individual parts have been pared down to the basics, and sometimes even further. "Why I Am" has one of Dave's simplest guitar parts, and cycles two riffs for the length of the song. Boyd's violin is missing from most tracks, stuck playing in the background, serving as the atmosphere the songs cannot conjure on their own. Only on "Squirm" does he break out, delivering a "Kashmir" like performance, the only dose of melody in an overlong dirge of a song.
The back half of the record bogs down, the songs missing the interesting textures that used to be the band's hallmark. These songs all drag along, sounding long despite their short lengths. Rather than expand the songs with their playing, the band has expanded the songs with Dave's voice. His singing has gained personality, as he is now able to become several different singers, depending on the needs of the song. He croons in places, he twangs in others, he even screams at the end of "Time Bomb". Dave also uses far more layering than at any other time in his career, drawing attention to himself, and away from the inferior performances of the band. This strategy would work if Dave had delivered a strong set of melodies. He tries, but fails in this regard. The first half of the record has a couple good melodies, but not enough to overcome the stale second half. Dave the singer has never been strong with a hook, and without his band there to bail him out, his weaknesses become more glaring.
There is one salvation on Big Whiskey. "Lying In The Hand Of God" is a stunning piece of work, and the best song the band has recorded since the original Lillywhite Sessions. A somber ballad, the song is carried by a gentle fingerpicked acoustic guitar. The sound is immediate, familiar, the sound of the classic Dave Matthews Band. Dave sings softly over the subdued music, his voice weary in a way his youth would not allow. He weaves a subtly melody over the top, his layered vocals in the chorus reinforcing the frailty of the song. It is simple, beautiful.
Big Whiskey is the Dave Matthews Band's farewell to a fallen member, and in many ways a farewell to the band that has existed to this point. What has been becoming clearer with each album, and now is unavoidable, is that this is no longer the same band that released those first three records. They may be the same people, but those days are gone. This is a band that has little left to say, and even less energy left to say it. They will continue to tour, and they will be an enjoyable show, but it may be time for them to think about whether they need to make records anymore. There's little point in going through the motions when you have fans you can only disappoint.