By Stephen Cohen
Dave Matthews Band has been doing this for a while.
In fact, if DMB were a person, instead of the collaboration between singer/songwriter Matthews, bassist Stefan Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford, sax-man Jeff Coffin, and violinist Boyd Tinsley, he would be old enough to legally order a beer at his own show. With that age comes experience, and hopefully, wisdom. The band exhibits both on their latest release, Away from the World, which dropped this Sept. 11.
DMB’s eighth studio album marks their reunion with legendary producer Steve Lillywhite, who worked with the band on the classics Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, and Before These Crowded Streets, so they can be excused for not deviating from their formula: creating energetic, eclectic songs that allow the different players to showcase their talents without standing out from the band as a whole.
The songs here are DMB’s usual fare. The album contains a couple of distinctively funky numbers, a few stripped-down acoustic tunes, and a smattering of other tracks that range from laid back (“If Only”) to driving (“The Roof”) to epically schizophrenic (“Drunken Sailor”). The album’s first single, “Mercy,” sounds like a mashup between “Crash” and John Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith.” The album’s best track is the not-so-subtly named “The Riff,” which builds a delicate, plaintive melody into a dynamic powerhouse, making use of each player’s clearly prodigious skill. In layman’s terms, it kicks ass.
Guitarist Tim Reynolds, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, and trumpeter and backup vocalist Rashawn Ross are all full-time touring members of the band. Each shines at different points of the album, but it is the rhythm section of Beauford and Lessard that make the songs work. Their consistent excellence has been key to the band’s success, and nothing changes here.
The lyrics run the gamut, from the cringeworthy: “War is the most vulgar madness/and winters can be so cruel,” in “Broken Things,” to the brilliant: “Come winter I will build you a fire/From the bones of who I used to be/Before you came and washed the weary away/Before you came here for me,” in “Snow Outside,” to the, well, gross: “Gonna eat your belly jelly ‘till the kingdom come,” in “Belly Belly Nice.” Matthews has never been a bashful lyricist, and he doesn’t disappoint here.
Quality-wise, the songs are all top-notch, with the possible exception of the sticky-sweet “Belly Full,” but the whole album does have the feel that there’s something missing. It’s not that the songs aren’t good, because they are. Certainly, they’re superbly played. Maybe it’s the lingering notion that Away from the World is an anthology of very good songs instead of a cohesive work.
Or maybe I’m nitpicking. It’s incredible that Dave Matthews Band continues to produce this kind of work after 21 years together; it’s a testament to the experience and wisdom that comes with age.