On September 11th, 2012, perennial journeyman of live, dare I say "eclectic," music, Dave Matthews Band released their eighth studio album, Away From The World; a multi-dimensional album further cementing DMB's legacy as one of the most versatile and unique bands on the contemporary music scene. For the first time since 1998's release of Before These Crowded Streets (Not including the semi-informal release of 2002's Busted Stuff), the band reunited with longtime producer, Steve Lillywhite to create an album showcasing just how much this band has grown since its humble beginnings in Charlottesville, Virginia. Simply put, Away From The World is out of this world.
With the formality of that all-too-obvious wordplay that you knew was coming out of the way, let's get down to business. Dave Matthews Band has long since '92 proven that they are far more than your sandal-wearing, hemp-digging band of "Hillbillies on Acid," providing what has now, scarily enough, become generations of fans with a one of a kind songbook with the depth and dexterity to satiate most all musical tastes. Away From The World seems to bring what used to be an intriguingly vague, yet pronounced, fusion of rock, jazz, bluegrass, and folk music full circle, culminating in a cleaner, more easily defined sound showcasing arguably even more elastic creativity.
Where Butch Taylor on the keys kept this group immersed in the pudding of quasi-genres, Tim Reynolds' presence on stage and in the studio gives this band a decidedly more rock-based sound, exemplified throughout this album and live shows alike, most notably as he shreds through hard hitting "The Riff." The vision of a unified horn section brought about prior to Big Whiskey's release has made a full and seamless transition to the studio as, rather than trade solos, Rashawn Ross and Jeff Coffin set the table for a larger sound and facilitate interplay between themselves and other band members, giving each song a sense of depth and cohesion not as easily found in earlier DMB work. Reserved fade outs on both "Mercy" and the uke-driven "Sweet" and a scorching, intricate arrangement on the rich "Gaucho" frame this album in a different light than any of its predecessors. With that said, Jeff Coffin's tight grooves on both "Gaucho" and "Belly Belly Nice" prove that while they no longer fit the mold of your stereotypical "jam band," DMB still has the chops to take their tunes off the beaten path and cut loose. Indeed, this band is very different both physically and in mentality from the last time Lillywhite produced them, but rather than try to force a "Crash 2.0" kind of sound, Lillywhite and the group quite aptly acknowledge the many sounds this band has explored over the years and capture a sound that puts all those years and songs into perspective.
While entirely coincidental, it's hard not to look at 2009's Big Whiskey And The GrooGrux King outside of the shadow cast by LeRoi Moore's untimely, unfortunate death. While a musically phenomenal album, with the exception of "Shake Me Like A Monkey" and "You & Me" the album features largely ominous subject matter, giving the album an intrinsic wounded sound of great gravity. Away From The World appears to serve as the flip side of the Big Whiskey coin. While the album opens with the pulsing guitar riff of "Broken Things", a sound and song title that appears to set us up for more of the same melancholy feel, Dave quickly pulls the plug on the blues with a soaring chorus "Oh my love is set on you," proving to be the catharsis of the album, giving the listener license to look up, in a sense, and appreciate life's positives, an emotion continued by the wildly catchy "Belly Belly Nice."
Inception-esque tangent: Track 2, "Belly Belly Nice", sounds suspiciously similar to track 2 of Big Whiskey's "Monkey" and features the first mention of Jack And Jill since "What Would You Say," Track 2 of 1994's Under The Table And Dreaming. Who says Radiohead has this big-picture-meanings-in-the-music market cornered?
"Gaucho" features a heavy sound and lyrics providing perspective on the many chapters and shortcomings of humankind (as Dave tends to do sometimes) proving that this album is anything but all sunshine and levity, but even the darker tracks on the album appear to have the underlying tone of hope in their delivery (enter chanting kids). Stripped ballads "Sweet," "Belly Full," and budding single "Mercy" resonate most on this album and are arguably the benchmarks for the unified, flexible sound of the band going forward. In addition, "If Only" is a swooning R&B groove that sounds like it could have been crooned by Marvin Gaye himself.
The album's closer, "Drunken Soldier" is the cherry on top of this musical sundae, featuring intricate guitar, tight horns, and as many layers as the album itself. The track resolves into into a sleepy, chillingly smooth transition into a likely unintentional nod to Pink Floyd's "Breathe" and a likely much more intentional mention of a "satellite." This humble homage to themselves has the effect of giving the listener a feeling of looking down from above at a retrospective of a band whose music has shaped lifetimes. It seems obvious that Dave Matthews Band used this album to look back on their careers... their lives... in much the same way. Away From The World features a Dave Matthews Band mindful of where they've been and excited for a future where their best music may yet still be to come. One can only hope they don't stay Away for too long.