Review: Dave Matthews Band - Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

Full Disclosure: Dave Matthews has always been an enormous influence on my listening and composing habits. The man's records taught me how to play guitar, and his existential nonsense lyrics ("I was there when the bear ate his head and thought it was a candy") were exactly the nourishment my mid-90s pubescence demanded.

But lately I've lost touch with DMB, and whenever a track bubbles up on my iKindle NanoPod
TM, I find myself lamenting the band's late exploits in territory far from the surrealist sound garden where I spent much of my childhood.

I know what you're thinking: Curmudgeon Alert! Soon I'll be lamenting the disuse of dot matrix printers and telling you to get off my Jason Priestly lawn ornaments. But there's more to it than just "good ol' days," and here's why.

After their third major label record and masterpiece, Before These Crowded Streets, Matthews, the band, and their producers began to stray from what DMB does best, which is make funky tunes with sharp edges, new textures, and strange mathematical formulae.

Their 2001 foray into smooth, air-tight pop with Everyday troubled much of the band's college and proto-hipster following. The production of the record was brilliant, thanks to the genius of Glen Ballard. But the limitations of Matthews' tangible songwriting were evident, and subsequent creative difficulties failed to produce any monumental work for some years.

Enter Big Whiskey earlier this month, and cue major comeback.

This record is important for two reasons. For one, it is the first studio release since the death of the band's saxophonist Leroi Moore in August 2008, and it features him prominently - the title is in fact a reference to a nickname the band gave Moore and his influential sound.

Secondly, the album does what recent DMB records have failed to: marry Matthews' now mature songwriting style with the dynamic textures and rhythms that made the band special when they blew up in the mid-90s. And it is a very happy marriage.

Despite the old-school DMB flavor of this record, the songs are fresh, tight, and full of style on both the musical and production sides. There are no moralist story-songs about saving the planet or knowing your place in life - just rich observation that gets deeper with every listen.

My favorite tracks include the spry ballad "Lying In The Hands of God," where an elegant vocal layering makes the great melody positively haunting.

Also, "Why I Am," which discusses the ascent of man in no uncertain terms, still leaves plenty of imagination room to be "dancing with the GrooGrux King," and reminiscing about the late Moore's saxophone poetry.

It's that imagination room that long-time fans have been waiting to return to. Well, Big Whiskey's finally open for business, so get dancing!

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