Sunday, June 14, 2009

Album Review: DMB's "Big Whiskey"

For the Fallen
In one of the more highly anticipated albums of the summer (a solid four years since DMB's last release, the ho-hum Stand Up), the Dave Matthews Band crafted another classic-in-the-making: Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King; albeit, this effort was completed without the band's sax player and founding member, the fallen Leroi Moore, an untimely victim of an ATV accident last August.

The term "Groogrux King" was a moniker the band created for the taciturn Moore, a man who often diverted interviews and public attention at every turn. Once called "DMB's soul" by one-time producer Mark Batson, Moore's jazzy influence was often the impetus for the band's signature in-concert jams, a man the band replaced with Jeff Coffin (of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones fame) at the time of his death for the remainder of the '08 summer tour and the remaining Big Whiskey sessions. Despite the switch, Moore appears to be all over the album, including its opening track Grux, an instrumental featuring Moore's sax and drummer Carter Beauford's rolling-thunder drums. The 1:41 minue-long clip is but one of countless highlights pouring through DMB's latest return-to-form, the 13-track bombshell that serves as a fitting tribute to the band's fallen comrade.
5. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Tim Reynolds
Perhaps best known for his supplementary work on Live at Luther College, Tim Reynolds has proven to be formidable with the axe, both acoustic and electric. With great ease and prowess, Reynolds, through countless acoustic shows with Matthews, helps fill the space left void by the band (after all, Matthews and Reynolds live is strictly a two-man show) with his innovative plucking, solos, and multi-layered effects, including pedal-work and use of the slide. He is now the band's "unofficial" seventh member (along with Matthews, Beauford, Coffin, violinist Boyd Tinsley, bassist Steffan Lessard, and trumpet player Rashawn Ross), as he is featured on a number of Big Whiskey tracks and is currently on-tour with the band, who recently played before a packed house at the Saratoga Performing Arts Centre in Saratoga Springs, NY. Simply put, his work on the electric guitar is mind-blowing enough to warrant (let's hope) a permanent stay with the band, who have featured his talents in one way or another for the past 17 years (since the band's inception in
Charlottesville, VA in 1992).

4. How about those vocals?
Most noteworthy amongst Big Whiskey's highlights is the vocal renderings of Dave Matthews, whose voice appears to be healthy yet again (for a time, the band had to abandon "Satellite" in its live sets because several ailments, including cigarette smoking and vocal chord strain, wouldn't allow him to reach the chorus' falsetto range). He's heard scatting, growling, crooning raspily (in a raw tribute to Moore, "Baby Blue"), wailing, and smoothly laying down some great vocals not heard from him in quite some time. Producer Rob Cavallo (of My Chemical Romance and Green Day fame, circa American Idiot) has beautifully captured Matthews's vocals that have become the driving force of the band's live sets, whether he's heard bellowing the "I'm on bended knee" lyric on "Bartender" or heard scatting on "Too Much" and "So Much to Say," two lively tracks from 1996's Crash. Simply put: very few effects are needed to refurbish Matthews's voice, an instrument that, even at Matthews's 42 years, remains as powerful as it ever has.

3. Whispers of "Big Three" status
When you think of Dave Matthews Band, there are three albums that come to mind: Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash, and Before These Crowded Streets, a trio of musical works that featured the band at its peak from 1994 to 1998. As a result of a grass-roots following, DMB rose from the frat house to the stadium, selling out show after show from one summer to the next...even playing as much as three consecutive sets at the likes of Giants Stadium and Fenway Park. While Big Whiskey will need to grow in order to reach "Big Three" status, its tracks have translated extremely well to the live setting, as first heard at the Beacon Theater, a show telecast on the Hulu Network earlier this month, the first of its kind. The band has truly returned to its roots with Big Whiskey, abandoning synthesizers and drum tracks in order to blend with the unique sound of horns and strings that made them the band they are today.
2. Carter Beaford on the drums!
For those of us who listened to Stand Up for the first time (DMB's last studio album, circa 2005), you may have noticed one glaring omission: the signature percussion/rhythm section that was the band's heartbeat. Beauford's feral drumming was oddly replaced by hip-hop drum beats that left the band sounding flat (quite fitting, when you consider the producer at the time was Batson, who had worked previously with hip-hop artist Nas). Thankfully, the mastery of the band's eldest member returns with some much-needed fury. Listen to "Shake Me Like a Monkey" if you don't believe me (a track that runs amok with horn-work by Coffin and Ross, as well).

1. Their Best Record in over a Decade
The mellow stylings of the band returns with the wonderful tracks like "Lying in the Hands of God," "Time Bomb," "Baby Blue," and "You and Me,"a sound combined with toe-tapping gems in "Why I Am," "Alligator Pie," and "Seven," all of which speak to the carpe-diem/universal love themes that have allowed the band to grow as chart-topping monsters and summer-concert heroes for the college coed and top-40 listener alike. Without question, Big Whiskey bests the likes of Everyday and Stand Up by a long shot, two albums that were considered clunkers by many loyal fans of the band. No doubt, DMB is back...and here to stay, thanks to the in-your-face return-to-form of the perfect summer album, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King.


Dan Balton said...

with out a doubt some of the best DMB so far. Each point really is spot-on on what's been missing and what makes this one great.

Facebookfanatic1998 said...

Great Album! Good Review. Glad to see the VList is back.