Recordings: Dave Matthews Band's 'Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King'

Last month, David Matthews and his pals christened Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion outside Houston, closed since Hurricane Ike.
Last month, David Matthews and his pals christened Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion outside Houston, closed since Hurricane Ike. (By Eric S. Swist -- Conroe Courier Via Associated Press)
By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Even before the death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore, the '00s hadn't been kind to the Dave Matthews Band. The band feuded with expensive producers, and its members feuded with each other, all while releasing gloomy solo efforts and glossy, confused-sounding band albums. For the first time, the group's perpetual mellowness began to seem less like genial stoner ennui and more like an actual lack of interest.

The group's new disc, "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King," is its first since Moore died of complications from an ATV accident last summer. He died during production, and his presence is keenly felt, in the sax solo that opens the disc and in much of the sax work throughout.

"GrooGrux King" is a felicitous tribute: The Dave Matthews Band's best album since the mid-to-late-'90s golden era of "Crash," "Under the Table and Dreaming" and "Before These Crowded Streets," it marks the first time in years they've sounded both interesting and interested. Produced by Rob Cavallo (whose time spent making grim yet carnivallike records with My Chemical Romance seems to be an unexpected influence here), it's a lively, swampy, feral mix of sex and death and fatalism and more sex, almost evenly split between wistful summer songs and groove-intensive New Orleans funeral marches.

Its sad songs sound happy, its happy songs sound sad, and just about every track offers a lesson in Dave Matthews Band fundamentals. There are the jams that don't really jam, like the nervy, potent "Why I Am," with its epitaph/rallying cry of a chorus ("It's the you and the me of the world/Only one way out of the world") and "Shake Me Like a Monkey," an up-tempo, horn-heavy "Crash Into Me" refashioned for Penthouse Forum. The jauntier tracks clock in at around four, virtually-solo-free minutes; they're meant as advertisements for their sure-to-be-jammier live versions.

The ballads and midtempo tracks hit almost as hard: "Dive In" begins like countless other benign DMB songs ("Summer's here to stay/And all those summer games will last forever") before kicking into a global warming allegory that plays to Matthews's longtime love of apocalyptic imagery ("Go down to the shore/Kick off your shoes/Dive in the empty ocean"); "Funny the Way It Is" is a precise, catchy pop song reminiscent of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic."

"GrooGrux King" is more rhythm section-dependent, more bass-heavy, than any of the band's past discs. Drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard do yeomanlike work, as does guitarist Tim Reynolds, a frequent collaborator on Matthews's solo projects and an increasingly visible presence here. Everybody seems rejuvenated even if nobody seems reborn. And though it's unclear whether "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King" is to be the last Dave Matthews Band release ever or just the last from DMB Version 1.0, for the moment, at least, it doesn't really matter. It's either a promising new beginning, or a fitting way to go out.

Dave Matthews Band performs Aug. 8 at Nissan Pavilion.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Funny the Way It Is," "Spaceman," "Dive In"

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