Forget Pavement and Sonic Youth – Dave Matthews Band is the quintessential college outfit. Rest assured that for every hip college kid who swears by Slanted and Enchanted, several more are singing along with “The Best of What’s Around,” putting Dave’s kids through college (if he even has kids, that is).
There’s nothing wrong with this: every generation needs its own “good times” band, and the Dave Matthews Band’s first two major label releases fit the bill marvelously. Gather some friends, turn the lights down, pop Under the Table and Dreaming into the stereo, and it’s senior prom all over again.
The problem is that the group Spin magazine once dismissed as “worldbeat goobers” isn’t satisfied: Before these Crowded Streets is stuffed – nay, bloated – with attempts to prove once and for all that DMB is an Important Band that can tackle Big Issues. In doing so, the band has decided to abolish any and all remnants of its poppy past, systematically disposing of its accessible hooks and focus.
Case in point: the first single, “Don’t Drink the Water.” According to Matthews, the song is a commentary on the white man’s treatment of Native Americans (a little late there, Dave). It’s a noble idea, but a virtually unlistenable one: five minutes of purportedly ethereal meandering that, for all of Matthew’s attempts at guttural protestation, sounds like new-age on steroids, followed by a murky two minute rave-up. I suppose Matthews and company should be lauded for their attempts to branch out in more expansive directions, but I’ll be damned if I want to hear the song again.
The fundamental problems plaguing “Don’t Drink the Water” are representative of those bringing down the album. Chiefly, the songs themselves go absolutely nowhere: the attempts at channeling a groove generally come well after the song has thoroughly convinced you that it’s as boring as the Weather Channel.
Similarly, the attempts at increased eclecticism are ultimately transparent. “Don’t Drink the Water” throws in a chant not unlike the one that made Enigma’s “Return to Innocence,” but one gets the feeling it was pasted on as an afterthought. “Stay (Wasting Time)” features a trio of gospel singers; the result is nothing short of embarrassing. Bela Fleck’s banjo barely makes a dent on the three tracks on which he guests. Most curious of all is Alanis Morrisette’s appearance on two tracks. Her backing vocals show that the concept of vocal restraint is totally lost on her.
Such failed attempts at establishing range are unforgivable when lyrics range from simplistic gunk (“I live with my greedy need” makes for poor social commentary) to pretentious gunk (why try and decipher “the symphony of death/this is the last stop/scream?”). Add to this “Rapunzel,” an utterly unappealing sex boast (“up and down we go/from the top you push me/this is such a thrill”), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
All in all, Before These Crowded Streets is a total waste of the skills of five talented musicians. Carter Beauford proves himself a rock solid drummer; Leroi Moore salvages a couple of songs with his saxophone licks; the rest of the instruments all have their moments. When the band gets it together, as in “The Last Stop,” buoyed by a pretty fair Eastern riff, it shows some promise. But nothing beyond “The Last Stop” and “Halloween,” a track made amusing by Matthews’s hilarious growls, is even distinguishable, let alone compelling.
The album is, in fact, little more than a nuisance. It’s too soporific to be of any interest, but too loud in parts to put you to sleep. Buy some Unisom instead.