[6 November 2003]
Dave Matthews has been a busy little man but on and off the concert circuit. The recent tour of North America filled more of his coffers while, at the same time, only growing his fan base with an eclectic mix of rock, folk, blues, and “jam” music. This has created one of the best and biggest rock around. Now, with some down time, Matthews is venturing out on his own. Sure he still has some help from longtime partner and collaborator Tim Reynolds, but this is the debut solo album from Matthews. “I have some sort of allegiance to simple melodies, but I was trying to be as experimental as I could be,” Matthews says in the press kit. Well, in parts he’s right and in brief moments he’s way off the mark.
The first track “Dodo” is a delicate adult contemporary affair that has a lot of different influences in it. From the rather primal, tribal-like percussion that moves into a field Peter Gabriel has visited frequently, the song has a nice medium between the jam band mentality and the singer-songwriter idea. “Why would you play by the rules?” he asks early on as it ambles along leisurely with horns adding the final touches. “So Damn Lucky” is another melodic pop ditty that has Matthews hitting an array of different notes, but the song never ventures far from the opening tune. Here he sounds like John Mayer trying to sound like Dave Matthews, if that’s conceivable.
The first single, “Gravedigger” is the oddest choice for a single if the video is any indication. The song, which discusses death in detail rarely gets on its feet, with Matthews stretching for words that makes some sense in this song, opting for a nursery rhyme to get at life’s bigger picture. Trey Anastasio, who guests on several songs, is heard on the guitar here while a lush string arrangement by Audrey Riley is wasted. The title tune is a soulful blues-based ditty that is sparse and gorgeous. “Trouble”, a strong candidate for second single, returns to an up-beat poppy format that rises nicely once the second minute begins. The light electric guitar wails in the distance have a bit of alt.country pedal steel in them, but benefits the track immensely. Some programmed murky effects are heard but quickly disappear.
Matthews is open to new ideas, but nearly to a fault. The gospel country-tinged “Grey Blue Eyes” would sound better on a Merle Haggard album or Hank Williams. Matthews reaches just a bit too much for his and the tune’s own good. “I’ve lost my way and I can’t find it,” he sings as the tune slowly dissipates. The religious overtones on the funk-a-fied “Save Me” fares just a tad better, but the moody Mississippi rock guitar resembles Bonnie Raitt on a bad day or the Black Crowes on a so-so evening. “An’ Another Thing” returns to the simple singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, but Matthews hits the lowest point of the record, with far too many high points. It’s a song that Thom Yorke would do justice to, but Matthews hits only a few notes well. The string arrangement has a certain XTC-like aura to it, simplistic yet melodic.
Matthews gets back on track with another adult contemporary love-handle hugger during “Oh”. “The world is blowing up / The world is caving in / The world has lost her way again / But you are here with me”, he sings as a simple back beat that could have been conceived around a campfire. It brings “Space Between” to mind from his latest group album. “Up and Away” is a very strong reggae meets folk tune that is the sleeper of the record. “All I know is you get me high”, Matthews sings before the chorus rises in tone. “Too High” is probably the sort of song that would have fared better earlier in the album, possibly after “So Damn Lucky” as there is an inherent tension rising in it. The acoustic “Gravedigger” improves on the initial attempt, but this album doesn’t dazzle as stunningly as some might anticipate. A very good album nonetheless, but not on year-end lists.