Now that Dave Matthews Band has seemingly made the transition from hitmaking übergroup to under-the-radar touring band with a huge following, these sorts of albums are bound to happen. No longer pressured to create hits that will sound good on the radio, Matthews now seems to be concentrating on writing songs that sound good in concert. To that end, Away from the World is a success. Almost every one of these songs sounds as though it could be stretched into a 15-minute jam at the drop of a hat. Almost every one of these songs contains a riff, or a motif, or a melody that could form the backdrop for endless euphoric solos.
This is immediately obvious on an opener like “Broken Things”, a song whose lyrical focus is so simplistic as to be almost insulting, and whose idea of musical progression is to stand perfectly still. It’s immediately identifiable as a Dave Matthews song given the instrumentation involved, and the riff sounds like something from an Under the Table and Dreaming or Crash deep cut, but there’s really no hook here, no transcendent moment to grab onto and fly away. The last 20 seconds or so, however, sound as though the song’s really about to take off — that riff is more insistent, Boyd Tinsley is starting to make that fiddle sing — and then it just ends.
It’s hard to imagine that in concert that song will just end. That riff will keep going for another five minutes, and Tinsley, drummer Carter Beauford, and maybe even electric guitar virtuoso Tim Reynolds could get a full minute to live in their own improvisational worlds. That we don’t get to hear that in the studio version feels like a cheat; Dave Matthews Band’s best moments tend to be when the band really stretches out, as on songs like “Seek Up”, and “The Stone”, and “Bartender”. All of these songs have codas that showcase the instrumentals; “Broken Things” just seems to cut itself off before it gets to that point, even as it seems almost written for such a situation.
“Gaucho” suffers from a similar problem, in that the jamming that would normally be happening at the end is replaced by singing children. Jeff Coffin manages to get some serious sax soloing in there, but the 9/8 beat deserves to be stretched a bit.
And then, there are the songs that sound like they’ve been retrofitted for just such a purpose. “Sweet” is a beautiful little Dave-and-a-uke song until the band pops in, completely changes the rhythm, and poises itself for long trips into the ether. Lead single “Mercy” is a perfectly servicable (if vaguely maudlin) pop track, but it’s almost like the last minute of it is tacked on as if to demonstrate that yes, it too could be stretched out for 15 minutes if that’s what the Band felt like doing.
Of course, be careful what you wish for, because final track “Drunken Soldier” is a mess. A minute of in-studio noodling, a minute of beautiful violin, and then it turns into an actual song for a couple of minutes, and then it sort of trails off for five minutes. There are parts of it that are beautiful, but they’re so hidden in noodling around that you can hardly find them.
To be sure, Away from the World is the loosest album that Dave Matthews Band has ever done. These are songs that feel like jams that are halfway to brilliant songs, and a little bit of refinement might have pushed them over the edge. There are moments that are brilliant, like the bridge in “Gaucho” and the first couple minutes of “Sweet”, but then there are also plenty of bits that make you shake your head, like the in-studio conversations of “Drunken Soldier” and the entire lyrical content of “Belly Belly Nice” (a crude, “Rapunzel”-esque ode to sex that goes a long way with peach metaphors). It’s trying on some level to be Before These Crowded Streets, with that album’s between-track transitions and extended instrumentals (and Steve Lillywhite back behind the boards), but it comes off a lot more like Stand Up, an utterly uneven listen with a few beautiful moments that will permeate through the band’s setlists for years to come.
All of this coupled with more of Matthews’ hand-drawn art on the cover (complete with the same sickly yellow color scheme as the cover for the brilliant Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King) makes Away from the World sound like a band in search of a foothold. There are no big ideas, no (successful) experiments, and most regrettably, no true classic Dave tunes. It’s a few songs from a band who needed something else to do at its shows. The only really good reason to get a hold of it is if you’re hoping to sing along.