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September 2002 Pick of the Month

Busted Stuff
Artist: Dave Matthews Band
Label: RCA Records
Length: 13 tracks, 54:43

By now most rock fans know the story: before the Dave Matthews Band's hit album Everyday was unleashed upon the world in early 2001, the band had worked on a batch of darker tunes with producer Steve Lillywhite.  The band decided against releasing these songs, but they wound up widely circulated via Internet music-sharing services under the title The Lillywhite Sessions.  The legit album released in its place was the lighter and more polished Everyday, which yielded a few hit radio singles but alienated many listeners, who didn't like hearing Dave's newfound electric guitar replace the combination of acoustic guitar, violin, and sax that has become DMB's trademark sound.  About a year and a half later, enter Busted Stuff, which includes recast versions of several Lillywhite songs.

I write this review as a Dave fan, but not as a Hardcore Dave Fan(tm).  As such, I won't try to compare the Busted Stuff versions of these songs to their Lillywhite Sessions counterparts, mainly because I can't.  I haven't heard The Lillywhite Sessions and don't really intend to.  In my opinion, even an artist as open to music-sharing as the Dave Matthews Band is must still probably feel a bit miffed at the widespread distribution of music that the group didn't even want to release.  At any rate, while the Hardcore Dave Fans(tm) of the world can debate whether re-recording these songs was a good move, any listener who takes Busted Stuff for what it is-the follow-up to Everyday, not Lillywhite Part II-will find a satisfying and laidback album.

If there is a clear attempt at a hit single on Busted Stuff, it's definitely the gentle and lovely "Where Are You Going," which is-surprise!-the lead single.  While some might dismiss this deceptively simple tune as a bit too lightweight, it stands head and shoulders above most of what's on current pop radio.  It also features some nice and subtle piano work from bassist Stefan Lessard.  Another highlight, the instrumental "Kit Kat Jam," features some nice pizzicato violin work from Boyd Tinsley and Matthews' sometimes-maligned electric guitar.  Other memorable moments include Matthews' appealing falsetto on the title track, and the opening ostinato in "Grey Street" (even if it does seem to resemble the opening to Crash's "Tripping Billies").

The downside to the new Dave album, however, is that it sounds like another Dave album.  For whatever nasty barbs Hardcore Dave Fans(tm) might trade about Everyday, that album did show DMB trying something new.  Many didn't like it simply because that new direction was a bit slicker than earlier albums like Crash.  But Busted Stuff is no Everyday, as the violin and sax are much more prominent here, and the electric guitar less so. While Matthews' voice still sounds good (as do the respective contributions of all five band members, for that matter), Busted Stuff doesn't really break any new creative ground sonically.  True, "Grace Is Gone" and "Digging a Ditch" begin with subtle acoustic guitar openings, but then the songs switch direction and start to sound like the rest of the album, leaving the listener to wonder what would happen if the bluesy lyrics of "Grace Is Gone" had appropriately bluesy accompaniment.

On the other hand, Matthews is taking a step forward lyrically.  Simple tunes like "Where Are You Going" and "Busted Stuff" sit nicely next to more complex and poetic songs like the despairing "Grey Street" and "Bartender."  In fact, "Bartender" could be Matthews' best song lyrically, a tale of a despondent barfly that includes some striking Biblical allusions.  It's practically a prayer:

 I'm on bended knee, I pray, Bartender, please
 Oh, when I was young I didn't think about it
 But now I can't get it out of my mind.
The dejected lyrics juxtaposed with lighter and more upbeat music create a surprisingly uplifting but challenging listening experience and a standout track-the kind of song alternative and triple-A radio will take to nicely but pop radio won't touch at all.

Overall, Busted Stuff is an enjoyable, listenable, and cohesive piece of work that pairs masterful lyrics with good musicianship, even if it isn't a huge step forward for the band.  Your enjoyment of it will be decided in large part by how you feel about the band's earlier work.  If you saw Everyday as a slick, overly commercial step off of the right path, you'll be glad to see DMB sounding more like they did in the days of Crash.  If you liked Everyday for its polished pop songs, you'll probably be challenged by Busted Stuff, but like any album worth owning, it will reward repeated listens.

Matthew Luter   8/18/02



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