For fans of Dave Matthews, the news regarding his fourth studio album, Everyday, may be disturbing, or at least disconcerting: After years of strumming unplugged, their man has discovered the electric guitar. Until now, Matthews’ devotion to the acoustic instrument, along with his straitlaced looks, his carefree stage demeanor, and his group’s unconventional employment of sax and violin set him apart from the alternative crowd, especially during his rise in the Lollapaloozin’ ’90s.
Next to his peers, Matthews felt organic, a pop music granola bar. The surprises on ”Everyday” don’t end there. The album finds Matthews paired with the least likely producer and songwriting partner one could imagine: Glen Ballard, whose passion for bludgeoning listeners with hooks until they cry uncle has led to a decade of hits with everyone from Wilson Phillips to Alanis Morissette. It’s like chasing down that granola bar with a can of Jolt.
As if to announce Matthews’ new intentions, ”Everyday” kicks off with a blast of guitar squall and pounding drums, which then leads into the rollicking, surrealistic sing along ”I Did It,” the album’s first single. The effect is momentarily jarring, especially when violinist Boyd Tinsley raps midsong. Before long, though, the track settles into more traditional Matthews territory. And so it goes with ”Everyday,” a bumpy ride that finds Ballard attempting to rein in Matthews’ self indulgent tendencies, while Matthews strives, with varying degrees of success, to ditch his jam band image for a sleeker sound.
In Matthews’ case, a little simplification is not a bad thing. On previous albums, the DMB had a tendency to overarrange their material; only the devout felt at home in the band’s thorny thicket of noodly solos and mice in a maze rhythms. Ballard is at least an interesting choice. He’s adept at knowing when to punch up a track (”The chorus starts now!” his arrangements announce) and untangle its knots. Here, he keeps the sax and violin solos to a minimum, while beefing up the band’s sound with harder rhythms and a bit of keyboard electronica now and again.
What Matthews sacrifices in the process is distinctiveness; for much of the album, he might as well be backed by anonymous session men. At times, though, the combination makes a twisted sort of sense. ”If I Had It All” may include a loopy lyric — Matthews tells us he doesn’t want everything because ”what in the world would I sing for?” — but Ballard lends the track a chimey, large scale grandeur, just as he makes Matthews’ lovelorn lament ”The Space Between” breathe in a U2 sort of way. You’ll walk away from ”Everyday” humming more of its songs than those on any earlier DMB album.
The real problem remains Matthews. He’s never looked or acted like a traditional rock star, but he’s never sounded like one either. The disadvantages of this no frills approach become apparent in the souped up setting of ”Everyday.” His attempt at a slinky Mick and Keef number, ”Angel,” is clunky, and throughout the album, his melodies and reedy singing feel strained. (Ballard should have told him when to stop huffing and growling.)
He still straddles an uneasy line between horny frat boy (”When the World Ends”) and sensitive New Age guy (the naïveté of the social concerns in ”Mother Father” would embarrass Cat Stevens), and he seems to make up lyrics as he goes along, as in the vaguely Arabian influenced ”What You Are” (”What you’ve become / Just as I have / Are you and I so unalike / Huddled here / You just as I am”). And Ballard must have been at lunch during ”Fool to Think,” whose unrequited sentiments are trampled by overly frenetic musicianship.
As its wearied title connotes, ”Everyday” feels like work, which in a way describes the Dave Matthews Band. For all their free and easy, play on vibe — epitomized by a New York performance I caught a few years ago, during which, after an hour plus, my friend and I realized the band had only played four songs — they continue to churn out music that sounds labored. Not even a pop machinist like Ballard can take the weight off. As a rapper might say, the Dave Matthews Band gets busy but amplified or not, the results are still too bustling for their own good.