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Bottled jam: The slickest producers can't stifle Dave Matthews

By Thor Christensen / The Dallas Morning News

The Dave Matthews Band is rock's poster child for split personality syndrome.

In concert, the group tests your patience with long, noodle-happy jams and bland musicianship. But the moment it walks into a recording studio, it mutates into a well-oiled machine adept at cranking out short, idiosyncratic pop songs. If anyone deserves credit for the transformation, it's the band's producers. Englishman Steve Lillywhite (U2, Rolling Stones) did a fine job of trimming the fat on the group's last three studio albums. But after starting to record Everyday with Mr. Lillywhite, the group fired him and brought in another high-profile studio Svengali – Glen Ballard, who steered Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill up the charts.

If the DMB was looking to increase its hip quotient, it hired the wrong guy. A veteran L.A. hit-maker who wrote Wilson Phillips' annoyingly chirpy "Hold On," Mr. Ballard is the go-to guy if you want to make it to the cover of Us or People – not Alternative Press.

But while the new album sounds more generic than previous DMB discs, Mr. Ballard does a fine job of honing Mr. Matthew's skills as a pop craftsman. From majestic, brooding rockers like "The Space Between" and "If I Had It All" to the melancholy ballad "Angel," Everyday boasts some of the most memorable songs Mr. Matthews has ever written. That is, if he was really the one who wrote them.

Since Mr. Matthews and Mr. Ballard share the credit for all of the CD's music and lyrics, it's hard to tell who penned what, exactly. What's easier is pinpointing Mr. Ballard's huge influence on the sound of the album. As Mr. Ballard plays down DMB's trademark sax-and-fiddle attack and plays up his own retro keyboard work, Everyday recalls that point in the early '80s when guitar acts like Rush and the Police overhauled their style with synthesizers.

Mr. Ballard's homogenous candy-coated synth floats in and out of half the songs on Everyday. But he wisely keeps it far enough in the background so it never detracts from DMB's main instrument – Mr. Matthews' one-of-a-kind voice.

Amid a thousand bellowing Eddie Vedder clones, Mr. Matthews stands apart for his rare ability to evoke drama without slathering on the theatrics. He doesn't need to snarl and howl to sound sinister in "I Did It" or "What You Are." Nor does he have to sob Hootie-style to put across a sense of pain in "Mother Father," a Marvin Gaye-style societal lament featuring Carlos Santana.

As always, he gets the job done with a well-placed whisper instead of a roar – a subtle gift that not even the slickest producer in the world could drown out.