Whenever I think of the Dave Matthews Band, I hear their song ‘Satellite’ in my head. From the band’s second album, Under the Table and Dreaming, frontman and vocalist Dave Matthews sings the number as if walking on crushed ice and avoiding an avalanche. Four albums and exactly 15 years later, the band is still playing their music with a drunken swirl, unnatural rhythm breaks and not-quite-jazz, not-quite-rock determination.
Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King smells of a small New Orleans Big Band. The big difference between songs on this album and those earlier nuggets is that the sound is much more filled out everywhere, giving little space to the origami-like soundplay that Dave’s clambering vocals are usually noted for. The sax intro, ‘Grux’, prepares the stage for the carnivalesque mood that follows. ‘Shake me like a monkey’, heavy in the brass section flirts with the ‘let’s-fill-this-place-with-music’ logic of Peter Gabriel. In ‘Funny the way it is,’ Dave sings with an easy finger-clickin’ sentiment that now seems to be par for the course for all ‘sensitive’ male singers. The words, “The way your mouth feels/ In your lover’s kiss/ Like a pretty bird on a breeze/ Or water to a fish”, doesn’t really inspire confidence in me. And no, it doesn’t actually sound less grating with the music.
Which is when the ‘correction’ happens. Despite the irritating alto sax that worryingly reminds me of Sting’s ‘An Englishman in New York’, ‘Lying in the hands of God’, is top-notch and subtle. Dave sings without the music blaring or showing off. The chord changes surprise us even as Dave goes angelic on us in front of the microphone.
The tempo moves — with the help of a nastily infectious ‘My Sharona’ riff. Dave is in his elements, stopping in his tracks in between lines, pirouetting with the words, and playing a game all the while belting out a solidly tuneful peppy number. There’s a gear change in ‘Dive in’, a gentle socio-political message in a CD track. (“One day do you think we’ll wake up/ In a world on its way to getting better/ And if so/ Can you tell me/ how.” Well, the folks in Obamaland probably love this kind of stuff these days.)
‘Spaceman’ is that mandatory jazzy number that I quickly fast-forwarded. Give me the Babylon Zoo number with the same name any day. In ‘Squirm’, DMB gets ‘heavy’ and I swear if you close your eyes and don’t remember the CD you’re playing, it could be a middle-of-the-CD track from an ‘Unplugged Korn’ album. It’s got that ‘symphonic metal’ thing going too, which is quite a departure from our intelligent-but-sunny DMB-friendly ears.
The hokey, banjo-picking jittersong comes in ‘Alligator pie’ with ‘Seven’ making much of Dave singing the old phrase ‘Love you’ in a radically new DMB way.
Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is that old-fashioned album where songs don’t really jump out but the whole album caters to make you, happy listener, more or less comfortable and revel in the nifty craft of fine music-making.
There are two hidden tracks at the end of the album, the first one a veritable swinger, the second a full-blown funk-banjo — yes, funk-banjo — rollicker. These two should have been the album-openers. But hell, whadda I know?