Dave Matthews is rightly regarded as an artist who found success on his own terms — critics, record companies and mainstream convention be damned. But that reputation took a hit last year when Matthews scrapped an unusually somber, nearly finished album with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite and instead released Everyday, a collection of bright, concise tunes recorded with pop producer Glen Ballard that muted his quintet’s instrumental eccentricities.
The chief virtue of Everyday was that it put an emphasis on the songs rather than on the overly busy arrangements and solos that had been Matthews’ trademark, but some of the band’s fans thought it went too far. Now Matthews returns with Busted Stuff, which resurrects nine of the dozen tunes from the Lillywhite sessions and tries to find a middle ground between the darker folk introspection of the aborted album and the pop pithiness of Everyday.
The new versions of the leftover songs sharpen the melodies and shorten the arrangements: The sax riff on “Raven” now swaggers, and the concert staple “Bartender” is trimmed by nearly two minutes. Some clunkiness remains, particularly when the band tries to turn “Kit Kat Jam” into a funky stroll; drummer Carter Beauford is better at painting with percussion than at rocking a groove.
The band still tends to overplay: Its fussiness undercuts the strongest of the new tracks, “You Never Know,” even as the singer reaches for some falsetto salvation. Similarly, “Grey Street” is spackled with pretty instrumental colors, but they never match the intensity of Matthews’ vocal.
Faring far better are “Grace Is Gone,” which evokes the haunted air of a classic country murder ballad such as “Long Black Veil,” and “Digging a Ditch,” which the quintet patiently imbues with a hymnlike glow. At its best, Busted Stuff suggests that Everyday was a controversial but necessary detour. After years of trying to build memorable songs out of an awkward mix of jazzy instrumentation and singer-songwriter introspection, Busted Stuff suggests a new lesson is starting to take hold: Sometimes simplicity is the best route to the heart of the song.