One advantage of actually being able to play your instruments: Midcareer crises are often less scary. In the four-plus years since Dave Matthews Band last convened to write and record a new album, its members have toured the country several times over; released four live albums and the rejiggered leftovers collection Busted Stuff; and taken time out as the band’s frontman recorded a successful, if lightweight, solo debut. The group also dipped its toe into politics, playing concerts for John Kerry on the Vote for Change Tour. But if you were expecting DMB to be bogged down by fame, fatigue or global politics on its thirteenth album, Stand Up, you haven’t been paying much attention to this twelve-year-old quintet.
“This album,” Matthews told Rolling Stone, “is about love, life, God, death and sex.” You can take him at his word, but Stand Up is also a quintessential summer record, a collection of tight, group-composed grooves and breezy tunes that sometimes float by too easily. Dave Matthews Band has always operated on a pleasure principle that has endeared it to nice folks everywhere: the adventure and instrumental skill of jazz music in a framework your average rock fan can understand, delivered by unassuming guys you don’t have to pay a two-drink minimum to hear. In the past decade, they’ve held onto this communal vibe even as they’ve streamlined their sound and quietly grown from a frat-rocking cult act to America’s biggest band. Where 2001’s manicured Everyday turned DMB into a world-beating, chart-busting juggernaut, Stand Up is the sound of a veteran outfit navigating between jammy mojo and pop-wise charm.
More than most bands, DMB needs a skilled producer to edit out the fatty jam sessions. For Everyday, the group had that in Glen Ballard; for Stand Up, Matthews has done well again, finding Brooklyn-born Mark Batson, best known for co-writing songs by Seal and India.Arie and co-producing tracks by 50 Cent, the Game and Eminem. Batson met with each band member individually, taping instrumental ideas from which Stand Up‘s fourteen tracks were later constructed: The result is a disc whose unfussy demeanor conceals a mountain of overdubs and deftly edited jams. There may not be enough sax and violin spotlights to satisfy old fans, but there’s lots of enlightened riff-rock and splashes of color — the syncopated strings on “Everybody Wake Up”; the sexy funk-lite of “Stolen Away on 55th and 3rd” — to fill that void. Even better, Carter Beauford’s drumming is less cluttered than ever. On standout cuts such as the light-footed title track and the wistful backyard-barbecue soundtrack “American Baby,” DMB’s easygoing choruses sound fully cooked, which hasn’t always been the case in the past.
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Stand Up is as democratic a record as you can expect from a band named after the singer. Unfortunately, that organic feel comes at the expense of Matthews’ personality, a combination of pervy extroversion and armchair philosophizing that Everyday channeled more purely. Matthews’ hazy words and warm voice rarely gather much force on the new album’s less memorable cuts, such as the slow, guitar-heavy “You Might Die Trying.” He tacitly addresses his displeasure over the Iraq War on “Everybody Wake Up,” which begins with lines about “the man with a bomb in his hand,” but that’s about it; the point of the song is the four minutes of percussion-packed communal uplift that follow. And the self-parodying yips and drawls with which he fills “Louisiana Bayou” reveal one of his less endearing traits: getting so caught up in the groove that he forgets to come up with a decent lyric or convincing hook.
If the thoroughly good-natured Stand Up proves anything, it’s that Dave Matthews Band has learned to temper its considerable chops with enough restraint and pop smarts that it no longer seems possible for even the most ardent punks to hate the group. But the album won’t give the unconverted a reason to love Matthews, either. When he sings, “It’s out of my hands for now,” on the sparse, piano-backed lullaby “Out of My Hands,” he might as well be describing his relationship to the music on Stand Up: The band’s singular groove is as self-sustaining as ever, and this happy guy is simply content to let the songs come as they may.