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Published: 2005/05/08
by Mike Greenhaus

Stand Up – Dave Matthews Band

RCA Records 68796

Before any Dave Matthews Band album is released, its recording process becomes a media sensation. Compared to most bands of their size and stature, Dave Matthews Band still does employ a rather organic approach, working out its arrangements as a group and testing select songs on the road. And, as always, fans are left hoping that the latest — in this case, Stand Up — will be the group’s long heralded return to their H.O.R.D.E.-era roots Sadly, Stand Up is not that album. But, that’s not to say that it’s not a solid, naturalistic pop disc. Essentially adhering to the blueprint it perfected on Under the Table and Dreaming, the quintet turn in 14 songs, mixing dark ballads, layered and edited jams, and a few custom-made singles. At times the album sounds fresh, such as Boyd Tinsley’s country-picks on the vintage sounding "Old Dirt Road," while — elsewhere — the disc sounds stacked with "Rhyme and Reasons," comfortable songs which are neither bad nor overly exciting.

For both 2002's Busted Stuff and Matthews’ 2003 solo debut Some Devil, the songwriter favored self-production with the help of his bandmates and longtime engineer Steve Harris. In an unexpected move, the Dave Matthews Band recruited Mark Batson for Stand Up, a producer best known for his work in the hip-hop world. Unlike Ballard, who was known for his heavy-handed production, Batson left the musicianship to Matthews and his band, building each track from group jams and individual recording sessions. Fashioning Stand Up as a DMB-remix of sorts, Batson cut and pastes each member’s instrumental parts, essentially sampling the group to recreate the classic DMB feel. Adding his own keyboard parts and helping structure almost each of the album’s songs, many fans also worried that Batson would steer the DMB into the hip-hop realm, perhaps the only part of the American soundscape the group has yet to conquer. But, to his credit, Batson leaves well enough alone. Instead, he buffs up the group’s bass and low-end drums and helping draw out the band’s latent funk tendencies, especially on the album’s title track.

As expected, the first single, "American Baby" is throwback to the emotionally-laced balladry Matthews perfected with "Crash." A bit older and more eloquent, Matthews lyrics are less awkward than on past albums while still not conventional pop-rock. Stretched over two tracks with a spoken word introduction, "American Beauty" is essentially a more mature statement on Matthews' longtime source subject: sex. Determined not to upset its Abercombie & Phish crowd, many of whom will soon grow into the next generation of jamband lovers, Matthews coats his songs with an organic edge, building "American Beauty" around Tinsley's gentle fiddle plucks.

Likewise, the haunting "Old Dirt Road" recalls the dark single "Don't Drink the Water," an accessibly sinful number with amazing jam potential. A live favorite, and the only number resurrected from last year's group writing sessions, "Hello Again" begins with the drum march which turned "Ants Marching" into the group's first anthem — guilty pleasure pop rooted in deep improvisation. "Louisiana Bayou" also seems tailor-made to stretch out in a live setting with solo segments reserved for both Tinsley and Moore. "Dreamgirl," the album's opening cut, serves as stylistic bridge to Some Devil, mixing in elements of Rufus Wainwright and longtime muse Emmylou Harris.

Among the album's funkier numbers, "Smooth Rider" is built around Stefan Lessard's basslines, always the group's hardest and most aggressive element. Perhaps DMB's most collaborative effort to date, each band member acts as frontman, though not lead vocalist. Instead, Matthews fashions his voice as just another element in the group's mix, at times fading to the background for Leroi Moore's jazzy horn solos. Perhaps comfortable enough together to know when to take a back seat, a few songs even strip DMB to a trio, allowing Matthews to spar with drummer Carter Beauford. On other tracks, Tinsley also exchanges his fiddle for an electronic mandolin, while Matthews takes a stab at grand piano. But, despite its best efforts to shake things up, each of Stand Up’s tracks sound exactly like the Dave Matthews and there is something endearing about that.

If the Dave Matthews Band will be remembered as a symbol of Generation X/Y suburban culture, than it's also fitting that Matthews takes his first stab at national politics on "Everybody Wake Up (Our Finest Hour Arrives)". Written on the heels of the group's involvement in the Vote for Change tour, "Everybody Wake Up" will no doubt serve as snapshot of post-election America when Matthews' canon is used as a time capsule to explain youth culture. And, for what it's worth, it makes some sort of apocalyptic sense that the track is neither a direct statement nor a cheesy post-9/11 souvenir. Like everything else on Stand Up, "Everybody Wake Up" is the Dave Matthews Band performing like the Dave Matthews Band and realizing that’s what they’re good at.

For many years, fans often wondered if the Dave Matthews Band would ever return to its jamband roots. In certain respects, the group has never left, recruiting bands like Yonder Mountain String Band and Robert Randolph for their summer tour and looking to Bonnaroo for ultimate approval. More than many acknowledge, the group has stayed the course, realizing that songwriting, not improvisation, is always what made the Dave Matthews Band different from other second generation jambands. And, with Stand Up, the group ultimately figures out how to handle a double-edged sword, trying new methods to create an album which remains faithful to its sound.

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