Saturday, September 29, 2012

The new Dave Matthews Band album: To listen or not?

Disclaimer: This is not a review. This is an introspective look about how taste for a band can change over time. Or how the band itself can change over time. 
Note: As always, your comments are welcome.

Earlier this month, the Dave Matthew’s Band (DMB) released their eighth studio album, Away from the World. I’ve listened to the iTunes samples, but I’m not sure I want to buy the new album or even listen to it. Why? It’s complicated.

Classic DMB: the big three

Dave Matthews was an important part of high school for me. Classic Dave Matthews Band for me mean the first few albums, Under the Table and Dreaming (1994), Crash (1996), and Before These Crowded Streets (1998, my favorite). I liked these albums mostly because the inventiveness and variety of the music. The best melodies were memorable, but that wasn’t always what made songs work for me. Lyrics and exiting riffs were a part, too. Here’s couple of specific examples:

1. “Drive In, Drive Out” from Crash. It’s the music that mainly gets me here, and I still get goosebumps when I listen to it. There is so much power in how this music is constructed, though everything fits into basically one riff and four chords. Although it’s a power song, our interest is kept alive throughout because there are so many variations of instrumentation and volume and texture until the music reaches the final unison section—maybe 6 or 7 unique sections that still preserve continuity in various ways. In preserving the interest, the electric violin and saxophone are leveraged to create effects totally uncommon in other pop music, and the cymbal and triangle work is pretty amazing, too.

2. “The Dreaming Tree” from Before These Crowded Streets. A totally different feel than “Drive in, Drive Out,” the lyrics are much more important in this song and are presented in verse instead of prose. Some of you know I’m a sucker for odd meters, and this one in 7 is no exception. Once again, each verse is a musical variant of the previous one, and the same is true of the simple riffs repeated between verse and chorus--they all have a musical direction and morph slowly. Strange pop instruments include bass clarinet, flute, bongos. It really keeps the listener’s interest for the whole nearly 9 minutes.

Both songs have interesting riffs (or a series of related riffs) that are varied throughout, really strive for new sounds, and have lyrics that connected emotionally in some way to the music.

Musical Decline?

Despite the success of these three albums, however, over the next three albums, most of the people I know stopped listening to new DMB material. Some people I know stopped listening at Everyday (2001) others at Busted Stuff (2002) Both these albums were just not as good as the classic DMB, I agree, but they were okay. The songs emphasized less those things novel to pop instead fixated on catchy melodies. Structures were more about repeating these catchy melodies instead of interesting variation. Even Dave’s voice was more neutral. Busted Stuff’s hit “Gray Street” is a good example of this: though the melody and riff are pretty memorable, the whole 5 minute song is basically one-and-a-half minutes of music repeated a few times, with some lyrical differences. While this is common for lots of pop music, this was not like Classic DMB (By the way, the disconnect between the dark, sad content of this song and the happy, dancing fans in the video is disconcerting. Is it the music’s fault, I wonder?).

But Stand Up (2005) was the final straw for me. I remember borrowing the album, listening once, and deciding to give up on DMB. I haven’t consciously listened to any new DMB since then (until this past week). Since that was seven years ago, I can’t remember exactly what made me actively dislike the album, but weird anti-piracy software aside, it was basically too predictable. The song forms (and topics) were stock, with quick sound bites recycled multiple times. The timbre was homogeneous, and you couldn’t even hear the electric violin anymore.  There were less novel musical experiences per song. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t decry something becoming pop-style, depending on how you define the word—I usually like high, sleek production. But it did seem that the DMB had sold out, meaning they had decided to stop producing quality music and instead produce simplified reproductions of the aspects of their music that they thought would sell.

Why the decline? The main theory is that their label pressured them into a new sound to sell more records. They did switch producers after the first three albums. Many support the producer-linked quality decline with Dave Matthew’s solo album Some Devil (2003), This album seemed more like the classic DMB albums, and the songs packed more variety and punch, though. “Are these what Matthews really would like to be writing, if he had his way?” people asked.

Or maybe, they realized they could stop working as hard and get about the same results.

Post breakup remorse—time to get back together?

Since Stand Up, DMB has produced two studio albums. Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (2009, nominated for two Grammys) and the latest one, Away From the World, and both premiered at #1 on the Billboard album charts. But have they got back to the Classic DMB sound? I’m skeptical. I don’t want to get my hopes up to have them dashed. Steve Lillywhite, the same person who produced the Classic DMB three, is producing Away From the World, so that could mean something.

What do you think? What’s your DMB story? Are you still following them, or did you stop like me? Were you never interested? Have you listened to the last two DMB albums and love them or hate them? What other bands have disappointed you with new music that doesn’t seem to live up to earlier material?

Vocab: riff, pop-style

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