Considering the circumstances that went into the making of their fourth album, the Dave Matthews Band begins Everyday perfectly.
Matthews, the eclectic Virginia rocker, has replaced longtime producer Steve Lillywhite, known for his organic, expansive style, with songwriting wiz Glen Ballard (Wilson Philips' "Hold On," Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror"), who puts his thumbprints all over the album and then some. With Ballard's assistance, Matthews has mostly shelved the approach that made his band famous the extended saxophone and violin play, the jammy acoustic guitar in favor of an album-oriented, electric-guitar-and-keyboard-heavy, '80s arena-ballad sheen. (Astonishingly, violinist Boyd Tinsley and sax man LeRoi Moore mostly operate along the edges here rather than play starring roles.)
In this context, then, it seems wholly appropriate for Matthews to lead off this new era with a startle. "I Did It" shocks from the get-go: it kicks off with a tough electric riff and immediately follows with brontosaurus drums from Carter Beauford, whose playing is usually free-form, jazzy and light. Ballard's heavy piano adds a classic-rock backbone, and Matthews sells life change forcefully: "It's a nickel or a dime for what I've done/ The truth is I don't really care/ For such a lovely crime I'll do the time/ You better lock me up, I'll do it again." Surprise: music's ultimate sensitive song guy rocks!
It's a powerful, but ultimately misleading, start. What follows is a mostly disappointing misfire that seems too eager for commercial pop success. Ballard, most famous to contemporary listeners for his work on Alanis Morissette's massive Jagged Little Pill, overwhelms this album. He plays all the keyboards, and is credited as Matthews' co-author on all songs. Cranking up the drums in the mix, he seems to long for the early '80s, when the likes of Laura Branigan, Bryan Adams and Howard Jones roamed the adult-pop landscape. "So Right," with its staccato horns, echoing drums and string-keyboard work, sounds like it was lifted from a lost Genesis B-sides collection. "The Space Between" is 1982 prom queen music; its overly-pretty piano and wimpy mantra of "Will I hold you again?" just seems out of place for the "Ants Marching" bar band of old.
Strangely, the Matthews-Ballard collaboration also diminishes another Matthews (and Ballard) trademark: sharp, memorable hooks. The only hummable choruses found here are on the aforementioned "I Did It"; the gorgeous, inspirational title track ("Pick me up/ Oh, from the bottom/ Up to the top, love, everyday"); and the soulful "Dreams of Our Fathers." The songs often soar Matthews' vocals are among his finest but there's no payoff, as the melodies never come down from the sky. A track such as "If I Had It All" plods unrelentingly, with no traces of the warmth that made, say, "Crash Into Me" and "Satellite" so popular with frat boys and squares alike. The detachment is just perplexing.
Ballard gives little room for the Dave Matthews Band to
breathe on Everyday. For a group that relies so much on
atmosphere and musical freedom, it may prove devastating. Perhaps
when they hit the stage later this year, the true power of these
songs will be unlocked. Will it then be Boyd and LeRoi to the
rescue? For the sake of the paying fans, let's hope so.