With the notable exception of its 1994 breakout single, "What Would You Say," Dave Matthews Band has always been more about sound than songs. This continues to be true on the group's propulsive new album, Before These Crowded Streets. Teaming up again with producer Steve Lillywhite, DMB is more successful on this outing than ever before in translating the roiling energy of its stage show to the studio. The band also pushes in adventurous new directions, incorporating bright new hues into its highly distinctive, instantly recognizable sonic palette.
DMB's lethal secret weapon has always been its extraordinary — and criminally underpraised — rhythm section. If you want to organize a band with a front line of violin, saxophone, and acoustic and electric guitars, and your music relies on tricky time signatures, complex arrangements and fevered ensemble playing that bolts into reckless improvisational flights, your drummer and bass player better swing like Joe DiMaggio. Stefan Lessard and Carter Beauford more than fill the bill — they anchor this unwieldy outfit without ever weighing it down. And when it's time to fly, they give the band wings.
Building on that foundation, Matthews makes some bold moves on Streets. With violinist Boyd Tinsley and saxophonist LeRoi Moore leading the way, "The Last Stop" shimmers with keening Middle Eastern melodies. Matthews also extends his own repertoire of vocal strategies on this track and elsewhere as he explores a range of growls, guttural moans and fervent, upperregister wails. Sassy background vocals lend a sensual R&B feel to "Wasting Time." On "Halloween" and "The Stone," the Kronos Quartet, an avant-garde string combo, brings a nervous disorientation to tales of fear and flight. Bela Fleck's banjo embroiders the edges of three tracks, including "Don't Drink the Water," the album's first single. Even Alanis Morissette — remember her? — turns up to breathlessly croon her way through a verse of "Spoon," the concluding song on Streets.
As for Matthews' lyrics, well, let's just say that the Pulitzer committee won't be phoning anytime soon. His words — and there are plenty of them — read like afterthoughts to some other activity, most likely writing music. They consist largely of wacky sex chat ("Ha open wide/All so good/I'll eat you"), good-hearted pieties ("Just love will put the hope back in our minds") and folkloric allegory ("Mommy, come quick/The dreaming tree has died").
It's best, for that reason, to think of Matthews' lyrics purely as a vehicle for his expressive voice-and to think of that voice as another instrument in this group's potent musical arsenal. For the members of Dave Matthews Band, after all, playing is the thing, and on Before These Crowded Streets they play as if their lives — and yours — depended on it.