'Whiskey' could use more grit
The stage, rather than the studio, is where the Dave Matthews Band has always shone brightest. In fact, much like the grandaddy of jam bands, the Grateful Dead (or DMB's improvisation-minded contemporaries Phish), the veteran outfit's expansive live approach tends to outdo its more conventionally structured, middle-of-the-road recorded efforts.
The same can be said for "Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King," the group's sixth studio album, out Tuesday and named in honor of late Dave Matthews Band cofounder and saxophonist LeRoi Moore ("GrooGrux" refers to him, apparently). In fact, the first and last thing you hear is Moore's sax, first conversing with and darting across Carter Beauford's drum patterns on "Grux," then reappearing briefly at album's end as a looped groove hidden in the digital abyss.
In between those tributes lies what we've come to expect from a Dave Matthews Band disc: a safe bet on reliable product. Like most of its predecessors, the group's first album in four years is a perfectly competent and professionally executed, if occasionally soporific, entry to the band's familiar catalog.
As usual, we get mildly funky party jams (the brass-buoyed "Shake Me Like a Monkey," whose opening recalls Cameo's "Word Up"); mid-tempo message songs ("Funny the Way It Is" finds Matthews musing generically about babies, soldiers, and the unjust state of the world); and cuddlesome ballads about couples plotting an escape to paradise after the kids have left home ("You and Me").
This time out, the band worked with longtime Green Day producer Rob Cavallo - and granted, Cavallo's resume includes helming sessions for polished popsters like Jewel and Alanis Morissette - but one wishes more of the grit, edge, or energy that's defined Cavallo's partnership with the dynamic Bay Area punk-pop trio had rubbed off here.
There are a few invigorating exceptions scattered about, however. "Seven" is a sinewy slice of sly, syncopated funk. And the countdown-to-combustion workout, "Time Bomb," finds Matthews melting down and singing hard (an energizing change from his typically enervated approach) as life and sanity unravel around him.
But too often the album is larded with adult-contemporary fare such as the string-saturated "My Baby Blue," and the numbingly new age-esque mood of "Lying in the Hands of God," accented with what sounds like flugelhorn (and are those wind chimes I hear?). Given the musically versatile, vaunted band behind it, "Big Whiskey," for all its stylistic reach and array of textures, is frequently beset with a curious bout of blandness.