Citing circumstantial evidence alone (cargo pants, puka-shell necklaces, freshman dorms the world over), it’s beyond easy to reject the Dave Matthews Band as collegiate detritus—the sonic equivalent of a faded hacky sack. But in 1994, when the group released Under The Table And Dreaming, Matthews’ bark-falsetto and his bandmates’ wonky, occasionally virtuosic instrumentation were mostly unprecedented, especially on pop radio. Those songs haven’t necessarily aged well, but they’re hardly the most despicable (or uninteresting) relics of their era.
The ensuing 15 years haven’t been as kind. Big Whiskey And The GrooGrux King, the band’s first studio album in four years, is a grand, bleating homage to late band member LeRoi Moore, whose posthumous saxophone wails open the album. Big Whiskey is arguably the band’s heaviest record to date; regrettably, DMB’s approximation of “heavy” translates to more electric guitar where there were once acoustic doodles, and an unhinged Matthews hollering “I want to believe in Jesus!” over generic guitar-and-drums squall. As a lyricist, Matthews prospers when he’s being boyish and mischievous (that toothy leer backs up come-ons like “Hike up your skirt a little more…”), but his earnest bits (“Do you know what it’s like to feel the light of love inside you?”) are mostly unbearable, and Big Whiskey, in keeping with much of the band’s recent output, plays like one big scented candle. A few tracks—see the shamefully titled “Alligator Pie (Cockadile),” which opens with a sample of a barking dog and devolves into a swampy, spastic, pseudo-bluegrass jam, with unintelligible scat-lyrics—are weirdly compelling, but it’s been an awfully long time since DMB made any real attempts at ingenuity.