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Bland on the Run
Dave Matthews goes the Journey route

By JIM FARBER


Even the most ambitious pop stars tend to release their most commercial work first — the better to get their foot in the door of popular appeal. They'll go for riskier styles only after they've found an audience loyal enough to stick around for the challenge.

Obviously, that MO was lost on Dave Matthews. First, the guy put out music that, love it or hate it, was incredibly quirky and uncompromising. Miraculously, that didn't stop him from becoming one of the world's most successful pop stars. Now, having amassed all that support, Matthews turns around and releases his most pleadingly commercial and conventional work to date.

Matthews' fourth studio album offers the easiest-listening, most blandly radio-friendly music of his career. This at a time when so much anticipation precedes Matthews' work, he could probably put out 60 minutes of pig burps and go quadruple platinum.

Only he knows why he chose this path, but there's no doubt he found the right accomplice. Though Matthews originally hired Steve Lillywhite to produce "Everyday," halfway through the project he canned him, scrapped the tracks and started all over again with Glenn Ballard, a man well known for boiling down even the weirdest quirks into palatable pop. He's the guy who hammered Alanis Morissette's run-on sentences, twangy voice and ungainly tunes into something so smooth, it not only got on radio but sold millions of records.

Even by those standards, he had his work cut out for him here. You certainly couldn't call Matthews' previous music "easy." "Bad," yes. "Easy," no.

Matthews' earlier music found significant distinction in its homeliness, lack of sensuality and the band's puzzling choice of influences.

Who but Matthews and his comrades would take inspiration from acts like the Mahavishnu Orchestra (for their clunky brand of fusion-jazz), Hot Tuna (for Papa John Creech's screechy violin solo) and fellow South African Johnny Clegg (for his frat-house version of Afro-pop)? It added up to one of the most awkward sounds in pop history, fronted by the most hiccupy singing around.

Now all that has been planed down into aggressively dull rock fodder. Aided by Matthews' decision to play electric guitars instead of acoustic for the first time, Ballard made the sound chunkier and rockier. He also bulked up the singing, exiled the stranger chord changes, cut the solos and seemingly banished half the band. You can barely hear any of Leroi Moore's squawky sax. Violinist Boyd Tinsley might as well have been on a trip to Bora Bora during the recording. He's totally MIA.

Perhaps Ballard's most amazing feat is the plastic surgery he performed on Matthews' voice. He eliminated most of his turkey gobble, making him almost sound romantic — as unlikely an occurrence as remaking actor Geoffrey Rush into a hunk.

Matthews' more passionate singing works well with the lyrics, which, like the last album's, favor romance and sexual ecstasy. He can't resist sticking in a few Sting-style change-the-world blandishments, but largely he plays lover boy.

If the result is far catchier and cleaner than any Dave Matthews album before this, it only winds up turning him and his band into this year's answer to '70s corporate-rock spores Journey. It's much like when the '70s prog-rock group Yes cynically tailored its sound to embrace '80s commercial pop for "Owner of a Lonely Heart." In a flash, it went from being a bad art band to being Foreigner.

If anything, it proves that nearly anyone can clean up with the right producer. But at what cost? In Matthews' case, it begs an interesting question: Is it better to make bad records that are original, or derivative ones that are competent?

Discuss amongst yourselves.