Thursday, October 15, 2009

Top Albums #6: Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets

Year released: 1998

Tracklist: Pantala Naga Pampa, Rapunzel, The Last Stop, Don't Drink the Water, Stay (Wasting Time), Halloween, The Stone, Crush, The Dreaming Tree, Pig, Spoon

Dave Matthews Band?!?!? Ewww! Didn't they sell out? Don't they do, like, love songs and stuff? Aren't all of their fans fratboys and underage girls?

I'm not even really sure what "selling out" means. Yes, they do do love songs. And I'm neither a fratboy (never was) or an underage girl.

I'll admit, DMB sticks out amongst my favorite bands somewhat like a sore thumb -- they aren't like any other band that I follow, for the simple reason that they aren't like any other band. And this album makes my top ten because, while I knew of DMB several years before this came out, this album specifically is the one that made me pay attention to them.

Specifically, it was the dark crazy-quilt lead single "Don't Drink the Water" that grabbed and pulled me in, with its banjo and wind and vocal flourishes. It exploded in 1998, immediately distinguishing itself as different from anything else on the radio-scape, and hooked me on first listen.

Now, not every Dave Matthews Band sounds like that. But that song was the hook, and pretty soon I was openly devouring their music and going to their concerts. I estimate that I've now seen the Dave Matthews Band in concert something like 30 or 35 times. They don't always wow me, but I usually enjoy them. The thing about DMB live that most people who've written them off as pop opportunists don't understand is this: in its own way, when properly motivated, this is a band that can rock as hard as any other out there.

I actually wrestled with including this album over Crash, which immediately precedes it in the DMB discography. I love a lot of Crash, played it a ton when my DMB appreciation was in its heyday, and still probably hear it once or twice a year. But Crash's debits, in the end, proved too much for me: sure, it has "Lie in Our Graves" and "#41," but it also has the drippy single "Crash Into Me," my alltime least favorite DMB tune (which they played on both nights of two-night Atlanta stand earlier this year, to my chagrin, and which the crowd lapped up both times), along with "Let You Down."

Before These Crowded Streets isn't perfect, either - "Stay (Wasting Time)" does exactly that, well past its welcome, and my ability to tolerate "Crush" comes and goes. In fact, the highlights of Crash and BTCS could make one hell of a record put together, but thematically they don't really fit (maybe a double album??). Crash, overall, has more bounce, and a lighter touch. Before These Crowded Streets is generally darker, but is also a more ambitious, confident record on the whole, full of texture and color, bursting at the seams with ideas.

It's still the best studio album that the Dave Matthews Band has made, more than a decade after its release (they flirted with surpassing it with their last release, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, but ultimately fell short).

What's best about Before These Crowded Streets is how much the band seems determined to use their opportunity. Remember, back in 1998, the Dave Matthews Band was still on the rise, still ascending in popularity, and this album was the third stage in their rocket to stardom. A couple paragraphs up I said that BTCS is bursting at the seams, and it really is, strikingly so--I can imagine the band in the studio, listening to the record as a work in progress, looking for new colors to use and new places to add a detail or two. That kind of effort can easily lead to something schizophrenic and overwrought, or just ponderous and joyless and dry. Happily, while BTCS definitely flirts with being overwrought, it avoids those pitfalls and still feels fresh today.

It's fitting that the word "crowded" makes up part of the album's title, because in many ways, it's like a crowded street fair with something interesting going on literally everywhere you look. It juggles genres from jazz to bluegrass to world beat to straight-out rock in a way that shouldn't work but somehow does. The band even includes a number of transitional interludes between songs, snippets of conversation or throwaway melodies that make the album feel like a unified, almost thematic work.

In fact, for quite awhile, I thought of Before These Crowded Streets as a concept album, like something Pink Floyd might've done, even though there isn't a readily discernible unifying concept to the songs -- there's a love song ("Rapunzel") and a hate song (the legendary "Halloween"), songs about religious fanatcism ("The Last Stop") and the evils of colonialism ("Don't Drink the Water"), loss ("The Dreaming Tree"), regret ("The Stone"), and getting the last laugh on a former lover ("Spoon").

Thematically, it's all over the place, but that's completely fitting for DMB, a band with influences as diverse as their instrumentation and cultural makeup. Relentlessly, almost exhaustively entertaining, even through some serious darkness, Before These Crowded Streets comes as close as any record can to clearly defining the polymorphous, continually evolving collective known as the Dave Matthews Band. And since I love the band, even after all of these years, I love the record. Still.

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