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Published: 2003/10/29
by Mike Greenhaus

Some Devil – Dave Matthews

RCA Records 55167

Dave Matthews has appeared alone in magazines around the globe. But,
ironically enough, Americas most successful musician doesn't have the
self-esteem to turn Some Devil, his studio debut sans namesake band,
into a full-fledged solo vehicle.

Perhaps the root of his insecurities, despite his status as Dave Matthews Band's leader, is that Matthews is the least experienced member of his successful quintet. That's not to say he's lacking in talent. In fact, Some Devil shows his baritone voice and sharp songwriting skills to be quite exceptional. But the guitarist has rarely separated himself from the band he co-founded 12 years ago, thus never taking stock of his personal assets. Lacking the ego to launch a full-fledged solo career, Matthews prefers to hide behind his weathered bandmates, playing sideman while Boyd Tinsley and LeRoi Moore take center stage.

Some Devil is a surprisingly sober effort. Like the excellent 1996
Matthews/Tim Reynolds duo effort, Live at Luther College, Some
Devil emphasizes songs, not jams. Also, like that disc, Some
Devil elevates Matthews' voice to lead instrument, using his strummed
guitar and Reynolds' subtle ambient sounds to accent his words, not to tango
with them. The catchy tracks merge lite soul and introspective indie rock
while unplugging the pop star's public persona, revealing him to be a humble
performer. Without his bandmates, Matthews ostensibly stands at Some
Devils forefront. But instead of trusting himself to try out new vocal
variations or elevating his guitar to lead instrument, Matthews hides behind
producer Steve Harris's lush, reverb-heavy production, stunting his growth
before he fully sprouts.

Stylistically, Some Devil is reminiscent of Busted Stuff, the
dark lament Matthews resurrected from the oft praised basement tapes of the
unreleased Lillywhite Sessions. But Matthews' newest disc marries
Busted Stuff's brooding ballads with strings and power chords, much
like the heavy handed, Glen Ballard-produced Everyday. Given that
Matthews wrote both albums without his band, within the confines of west
coast studios, it's not surprising that Some Devil contains the same
crisp seasoning that helped propel Everyday up the Billboard charts.
Not confident enough to play star on his own solo album, Matthews enlists
several hard hitting rock and roll ringers. Reynolds, Phish guru Trey
Anastasio, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the rhythm section of Brady
Blades and Tony Hall all flex their muscles here. Yet their contributions
are sandwashed by keyboards and ubiquitous vocal echo, turning musical
heavyweights into a seasoned moral support group.

At the core of Some Devil stands "Gravedigger," the album's first
single and stylistic blueprint. A concert staple since 2002, "Gravedigger"
is a catchy "Ring Around the Rosie"-derived ditty dealing with death.
Without his band layering the track with their jazz-funk foundation,
Matthews molds the song into John Mayer-esque contemporary chamber pop:
coffee house music set at an Internet cafQuiet studio sounds knit the
song together, while Reynolds and Anastasio weave into the single's mosaic.
Admittedly catchy, the song suffers compared to its acoustic rendition,
which is conveniently placed as Some Devil’s caboose. Like Neil Young
before him, Matthews bookends Some Devil with the same song,
thematically linking the disc. But Matthews' sparse, almost spoken-word
rendition of "Gravedigger" proves that his fanatic female fans are right
about something: Matthews sounds better naked.

An awkward lyricist, Matthews has two-stepped his words more than once while
developing his musical legacy. To his credit, Some Devil contains
Matthews' most toned cuts to date, shaving off unnecessary lyrical flab.
"Stay on Leave" stands among the songwriter's most poignant romances, while
"So Damn Lucky" is a lucid, Rufus Wainright-inspired piece of pop. Though
Anastasio co-wrote the Eastern-flavored "Grey Blue Eyes with Matthews, the
Phish guitarist's most memorable moments unfold during "Up and Away," a
reggae cut that recalls Matthews' early full-band charm. But even that fluid
uptempo number highlights Matthews' weightier words. For better or worse, he
no longer has any interest in writing frat anthems like "Ants Marching."

With so many big names packed onto one disc, Some Devil is
stylistically similar to Santana's Supernatural. While Santana
stepped aside to let his famous friends guest host, Matthews makes no qualms
about stringing his friends into an ethereal backdrop. But Matthews never
confidently emerges as the album's lead musician, leaving the album somewhat
incomplete. Though Reynolds' trademark minimalism is firmly in place, and
Matthews manages to staple Anastasio's energetic solos on top of five
relatively sedate songs, it's clear that Some Devil is a producer's
product, not fleshed out by a full band. Sure, Blades and Hall provide
solid performances throughout, recalling Blades' work with Some
Devils muse, Emmylou Harris, but the disc is packed with assembly-line
polish. But late album tracks "Oh" and "Baby" do prove that Matthews still
makes thematically cohesive albums, not singles collections. Moreover, the
album's title track features some quirky piano work from Phish's frontman,
showcasing the guitarist's talent in a new way.

Enjoyable enough, Some Devil is still an acquired taste and, at
first, a justifiably jarring listen for Matthews' rabid followers. Showing
how successful Matthews might have been without his pop production, a short
live collection is included with the album's initial pressing. Recorded
during the Matthews recent theater tour with Reynolds, the Some Devil
bonus CD displays the two without the glitter and glue that makes Some
Devil a messy art project. Mixing Some Devil tracks like "Stay or
Leave," early jams such as "Seek Up," and Matthews' most polished pop
nuggets, "When the World Ends" and Gray Street," the disc presents the
frontman at his finest. Almost entirely alone, he sings with clarity, plays
with precision, and packs stoner funk, soul, and cyber singer-songwriter
sounds into short bursts of studio-free energy with great success.
Contemporary pop numbers are transformed into acoustic masterpieces, while
new tracks breathe like his back catalogue. Matthews doesn't need to bury
his abilities behind guest musicians and studio-savvy showmanship. He needs
to foster his individual voice.

Placed next to his bandmates, Matthews is often written off as simply the
quintet's sex symbol. As his live CDs highlight, though, Matthews' talents
are considerable: he's not only a crafty songwriter, he's also a powerful
singer and guitarist. But instead of using these elements to turn Some
Devil into a fully realized solo project, Matthews bows behind pop
production and big name guest stars, simply resetting his voice in another
cluttered setting. But like a shy child, Matthews overcompensates for his
low self-esteem and ends up lost in a sea of strings and misplaced stars.

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