If Hootie and the Blowfish are heirs to the more song-oriented part of the Grateful Dead’s legacy, Spin Doctors and Dave Matthews Band are among those groups vying to continue the ideals of the live Dead, exploring diverse sounds from a rock perspective in a commitment to free-flowing improvisation. But the single biggest factor connecting these bands is their lazy, elastic groove.
The jam bands’ loping beats are strong enough to propel you to the fridge to fight the munchies, but they certainly don’t make you wanna dance. At best you just do the awkward white-person wiggle. This groove permeates these two albums to the extent that they merge. But in the interest of consumers, I’ll try to chart the distinctions.
New York’s Spin Doctors were the first jam band to break commercially, scoring a hit in 1992 with the Steve Miller rip-off “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” The group was so intimidated by success that it tried to be as quirky and hook-free as possible on its second album, 1994’s Turn It Upside Down. But You’re Got to Believe in Something returns to more commercial terrain.
The title track and the single “She Used to Be Mine” pair that shufflin’ groove with arena-size hooks and lyrics that could be lifted from the men’s room at Wetlands, New York’s hippie rock club. The musical experiments are limited to some ham-handed attempts at reggae, but the nadir is the hidden bonus track, a clunky cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It),” with guest rapping by Biz Markie. It’s not as bad as it sounds — it’s worse.
Virginia’s Dave Matthews Band takes more chances. Matthews’ vocals sound too much like Sting’s at times, the lyrics are typically banal, and in “Proudest Monkey,” the band abandons even the hint of a beat and simply plods along for nine minutes. Snappier violin-driven excursions such as “Tripping Billies” mix the progressive rock of U.K. or Eddie Jobson era Roxy Music with the earthy folk rock of Fairport Convention. This eclecticism gives Matthews a slight edge over his peers, but that’s sort of like saying you prefer vanilla ice cream to vanilla frozen yogurt. Me, I dig Cherry Garcia.