By Greg Kot
Updated October 03, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Dave Matthews has settled into a comfortable midlife as an arena-rock Everyman. His namesake band has its folk-jazz fusion down to a busy science — it has never met a note it couldn’t dance around for hours. And Smilin’ Dave presides over it all with those Gumby stage moves and a voice that floats like a happily inebriated butterfly. For a decade, he’s done it his way and made it pay off: Last year, the band rolled in more than $60 million on the road, and it filled stadiums again this summer.

But on Some Devil, his first solo release, he temporarily shelves one of the biggest gravy trains of the last decade to try out some songs with a few old friends (frequent DMB collaborator Tim Reynolds, Phish’s Trey Anastasio), a new rhythm section (Louisiana drum maestro Brady Blade, bassist Tony Hall), and a big ol’ orchestra. What promises to be a radical departure really isn’t, however.

”Some Devil” falls in line with the last couple of Dave Matthews Band studio albums, which de-emphasized open-ended jams in favor of a more sculpted, song-oriented approach. It does embrace a new level of sophistication — or is that bombast? — with strings and horns. And it also projects a greater vulnerability, as Matthews performs with little more than a guitar for accompaniment on a handful of tracks. The one constant? That flawed, fascinating, instantly recognizable voice.

But when Matthews pushes out of his comfort range into falsetto, he sounds like he’s slip-sliding on a skating rink of musical scales. ”I’m dizzy from all this spinning,” he sings on ”So Damn Lucky,” and any listener who tries to hang on to these meandering vocal melodies will feel the same way. It’s an improv-based style that Matthews still hasn’t mastered in the way that quirky talents such as folk-soul pioneer Terry Callier and the late Jeff Buckley did. Buckley, in fact, would’ve sounded more at home in the helium atmosphere of ”An’ Another Thing.”

The arrangements, though, nudge Matthews into some promising new areas. Blade brings both a touch of world-beat exotica on a variety of percussion and an airtight rock pocket, which Matthews has lacked in the past. The drummer’s second-line New Orleans tempo, dusted by Dirty Dozen Brass Band horns, turns ”Dodo” into the kind of sly, insistent pop song that Matthews couldn’t quite pull off amid the frills and fills of his regular band. On ”Gravedigger,” Blade stokes the beat to a crescendo, a big rock anthem that U2 might covet. (Speaking of Bono and the boys, Matthews does a passable ”Joshua Tree”-era imitation on ”Trouble,” with guitars tracing reverb-laden patterns against a swirling gray-cloud keyboard backdrop.)

If this is not quite Matthews’ ”roots” album, it comes darn close on idiomatic explorations such as ”Save Me,” with its churchy call-and-response cadences stoked by Reynolds’ irreverent guitar. Anastasio sets the hoodoo meter to the ”swamp” setting on ”Grey Blue Eyes,” a high-tech step or two removed from a field holler. ”Up and Away (Eden)” detours to Jamaica and the more aggressive soul-dipped side of ’70s reggae. And on ”Some Devil,” Matthews develops a persuasive case of the solo electric blues.

But the Matthews Band’s absence does leave a void, mainly because their instrumental acrobatics usually glossed over the flimsier songs written by their fearless leader. Here, there’s no hiding from the unbearably twee ”Oh” (”I love you oh so well/Like a kid loves candy and fresh snow”), the orchestral overkill of ”Too High,” the sub-Cat Stevens balladry of ”Baby.” The singer morphs into a human beat box on ”Stay or Leave,” laying down a subtle bed of clicks and pops that’s far more interesting than the tissue-thin melody. Wisely, Matthews repeats the strongest song, ”Gravedigger,” as an acoustic finale. With a few more tunes as compelling as this one, a ”Dave Unplugged” album might be worth considering. Until then, Matthews better rejoin his band and get back to the arenas, where he belongs.