Chris Willman
June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Lillywhite Sessions

Current Status
In Season
No Label
We gave it an A-

Legend has it that in the late ’60s, Brian Wilson burned some of the master tapes for Smile, the aborted Beach Boys project many fans believe might have become the group’s magnum opus. If that scenario arose today, of course, Wilson might flick his Bic to torch the reel-to-reels only to find that some preservation-minded engineer had already leaked the rough tracks to the Internet.

It seems outright destruction is the only way to keep shelved material from finding its way to the public. No one knows that better than the Dave Matthews Band, who have an unreleased project of their own that’s going up in flames. But this time the smoke is emanating from untold tens of thousands of CD-RW drives, all busy burning copies of the so-called ”Lillywhite Sessions,” an album the group had almost finished recording last year with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite before they set it aside to start afresh. Since first being leaked to the Web in March by sources unknown, ”Sessions” has become the biggest phenomenon in bootlegging since Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes surfaced three decades ago. If unauthorized downloads counted as sales, it would probably have gone gold, maybe even platinum, during its first couple of months on the free market known as Napster. (More recently, Napster has been blocking even creative misspellings of the song titles, though the tunes still aren’t hard to track down for anyone with half the obsessiveness of your average Davehead.)

Few abandoned albums turn out to be suppressed masterpieces. (Does anybody think John Phillips’ recently released collaboration with the Stones was worth the 28-year wait?) So when you visit the massively trafficked DMB message boards and find widespread assertions that this project is not only superior to Everyday — the album subsequently recorded with producer Glen Ballard and released in February — but their best effort ever, you might chalk up the hyperbole to the lure of arcana: Think of all those groovy theology students who prefer the gnostic gospels to the official release versions.

As lost albums go, this one’s a keeper, though. It’s also depressing as hell, which — along with the lack of an obvious radio single — helps account for its orphaned status. Matthews has always been a bit fixated on mortality, which has tended to result in bittersweet-at-worst carpe diem anthems of the ”Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we’re toast” school. But during these ”Sessions,” reeling from the deaths of his stepfather and a beloved uncle, Matthews had the end more clearly in sight. ”Still think it’s strange I won’t be long for here,” he muses in ”Captain.” ”When I was young, I didn’t think about it/Now I can’t get it out of my mind,” he admits in ”Bartender” — ”it” presumably being the big sleep. The album’s only straightforward ballad, the country-influenced ”Grace Is Gone,” could be a lament for any old lost love, until the drunken singer recalls waking with his spouse’s ”cold hand in mine,” making it clear she left him for another plane, not man.

So much for that frat-house-fave image. If this isn’t weighty enough stuff, Matthews amps up another old thematic standby: the unlikeliness of the existence of God. The Peter Gabriel-like ”Grey Street” has a beleaguered hausfrau fearing her prayers fall on deaf ears. In the album’s 10-minute centerpiece, ”Bartender,” Matthews beseeches his divine barkeep for ”the wine you gave Jesus that set him free after three days in the ground,” though his cranky tone suggests wavering faith that any such spirit is in stock. ”Bartender” has been the clear highlight of most recent DMB shows; imagine the sweep of U2 but with the triumphalism gone ambiguously agnostic.

In making these erstwhile undercurrents into major themes, Matthews did risk major bummerdom, and it’s easy to see why the group wanted to reenliven not just their fan base but themselves with the more light-spirited Everyday. But in already-established concert standards like ”JTR,” there are a few leavening moments of trademark funk. And the spoonful of sugar that especially helps the melancholy go down is the constant presence of saxophonist Leroi Moore, who sweetly dances around the most supple and expressive singing Matthews has ever done, as if patiently trying to apply salve to a moving target.

In a perfect world, Matthews might have pulled a Springsteen and simultaneously released both the deep-sixed ”Sessions” and Everyday, which seems designed almost as an answer album. (The best of the unreleased tracks will probably show up on a forthcoming live album. To read the band’s comments on the ”Lillywhite Sessions,” go to Thanks to the Web, anyway, all these gnostic songs are destined to achieve something their frustratedly flesh-and-blood narrators can’t: immortality.

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