Color Me Converted
Seems the small Pennsylvania town of Hershey is not only famous for its chocolate. It’s also got its fair share of Dave Matthews Band fans, as well.
While returning a video recently to a Blockbuster store on the aptly named Chocolate Avenue, I noticed three cars in the parking lot: one with the license plate “DMB FAN” and the others with crude variations of this. I laughed to myself, thinking, “Dumb fan?” and forgot about it. A few miles down the road, though, I noticed a sign alerting me to the fact that the stretch of highway I was traveling on had been “adopted” by the “Pennsylvania fans of the Dave Matthews Band”. Oh, I thought, now I get it.
Up until only a few weeks ago, I had never heard anything by Dave Matthews Band, and it was only about two years before that, while attending college in DC, that I even learned of the band itself. I overheard a conversation in my university’s cafeteria between two friends discussing a third friend of theirs who has spent thousands of dollars on Dave Matthews Band merchandise and traveling costs to see the Band at every show she could make. Upon further investigation, I discovered that one was either completely obsessed with the Band or entirely against its apparent stain on the music world.
In the two years following that conversation, I wasn’t exactly avoiding the group’s music. I just never switched on to MTV or VH1 in time to catch one of their videos of live performances, and back home here in Australia, the band are pretty much unknown. But upon returning to Hershey not too long ago, and viewing those offending license plates, it was time, I figured, for me to find out just who this Dave Matthews joker was, and what the hell was so good about his damn Band.
What I found out is that The Dave Matthews Band is certainly worthy of acclaim. And, while I may be completely unqualified to compare the band’s fifth studio album, Busted Stuff to its previous four, I am able to say that the new record is a masterwork filled with heavy violins, silky woodwinds, a driving soprano sax, a haunting bass guitar, and expert melding of jazz and rock, with Latin beats and bluesy overtones. And then, of course, there’s that voice—quite frankly, I’ve never heard anything like it.
Busted Stuff opens with the jazz-styled title track, with Matthews be-bopping all over the place backed by an explosive, wailing saxophone in a song about the trail of indignities left behind following the breakdown of a relationship. The song is instantly addictive, calling for less toe tapping and more body swaying, setting the languid, dreamy feel of the album.
Jazz-inspired sensuality continues with “Grey Street”: “[She thinks] I’ve dreamed myself a thousand times around the world / But I can’t get out of this place / There’s a emptiness inside her / And she’d do anything to fill it in / And though its red blood bleeding from her now / It’s more like cold blue ice in her heart.” Matthews perfectly captures brink-of-adulthood wanderlust so often felt by young women experiencing the not-so-colorful realities of romance, and the undulating fear that comes with accepting responsibility following years of parental boundaries, and fleeing the high school / college safety net: “She feels like kicking out all the windows / And setting fire to this life / She could change everything about her / Using colors bold and bright / But all the colors mix together to grey.” Matthews uses very deliberate language to create something brutally poignant. After hearing this song alone, I suddenly began to understand why Matthews’s fans could be so obsessively loyal.
This same sense of directing the masses in life is evident on “Captain” on which Matthews cleverly likens a restless ship at sea to a rough and unsure relationship. The captain of the title refers to everybody’s basic position in a relationship, that our choices are our own and that we’re the only ones who can decide whether or no those decisions are right: “Crazy as I make my way through this world / It’s for no-one but me to say / What direction I shall turn.” Matthews confides that regardless of his choices, he requires no pity and no sympathy from his lover, that decisions made come out of simple curiosity and that maybe what we need is right in front of us.
Such unabashed individuality is echoed on “You Never Know” with Matthews pondering what would happen if God “[shuffled] by”, that maybe if he did we could gather some sense of reason for being. “I wonder if someone in the heavens / Looking back down on me,” Matthews sings, before concluding that it’s our dreams that matter in life, no matter if there’s someone looking out for us or not. In fact, he comes right out with it bluntly by saying, “Don’t let the troubles in your head / Steal too much time / You’ll soon be dead / So play . . . Every day should be a good day to die.”
“Digging a Ditch” goes in a similar direction, with Matthews reiterating that we’re only going to get old and die, so best to “run to your dreaming” while alive by turning off the TV and the phone to “get on with digging your ditch”.
Matthews then twists this theme of living each day to its fullest on “Big Eyed Fish” relating three stories of people (well, a man, a fish and a monkey) who step out of their comfort zones to test the waters on “the other side” of life only to wind up dead or destitute. Bizarrely creating cute characters like Fish and Monkey to prove a point about how escape from a complicated life may not be what’s necessary, when simple acceptance and concentrating on the good things in that life may just be the answer. “See this monkey / Sitting up in his monkey tree / One day decided to climb down and run off to the city / Look at him now lost, tired / Living in the street / As good as dead / You see what a monkey does / Stay up in your tree.” Twisted and complicated, Matthews little stories are always charming, uplifting and on the money.
Matthews’s lyrics on the new album are very careful, soft and poetic metaphors filled with love, death, despair, hope, strength, weakness and everything in between. His voice is captivating, mesmerizing. It floats through you, almost like liquid, yet still somehow tangible. Listening to Matthews’s voice can be extremely relaxing. He has a strange ability to, when deconstructing his own sensibilities through song, come off as almost messianic: as a preacher, speaking words, especially to young people, with a voice that could very well be their own.
Busted Stuff comes complete with two surprises especially for the fans: the song “Bartender” thrown in at the end of the album (apparently this is the most requested song at the Band’s shows, not surprising as the song is an incredible anthem of betrayal, injustice and hope: “Bartender please / Fill my glass for me / With the wine you gave Jesus / That set him free / After three days in the ground”), and DVD featuring live performances of “Bartender” and “When The World Ends” as well as a 5.1 mix of “Bartender” and an Internet key to other exclusive DMB stuff. The inclusion of these goodies is proof enough for me that fans of The Dave Matthews Band willing to go as far as adopting a highway in its name, or to spend thousands of dollars to see the Band live repeatedly also get something back for their efforts. That’s, of course, if the incredible music wasn’t already enough.
// Notes from the Road
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