Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Under the Table and Dreaming’ at 20: Classic Track-by-Track Review

Album Review
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For many, the idea of a “classic” Dave Matthews Band album is laughable, if not perverse. That goes for fans and non-fans alike. On one side, you’ve got hardcore Daveheads, who generally prefer stretched-out, heavily improvised live versions of songs to their more compact studio counterparts. On the other: the legions of DMB haters who take issue with lionizing any Dave recordings -- even the relatively non-jammy ones found on the band’s major-label debut, Under the Table and Dreaming, released 20 years ago today (Sept. 27).

If neither diehards nor fervent detractors are inclined to spin it on the regular, Under the Table and Dreaming remains a favorite among casual fans. Produced by frequent U2 collaborator Steve Lillywhite, the album arrived less than a year after DMB’s Remember Two Things, a mostly live LP that had sold 60,000 copies through word-of-mouth promo and grassroots touring. In September 1994, this Virginia quintet was a barely kept secret, and once “What Would You Say” and “Ants Marching” hit radio, the band blew up, Hootie-style.

Well, not quite like Hootie and the Blowfish. Whereas H&B’s Cracked Rear View topped the Billboard 200 and became the seventh-biggest-selling album of 1994, Under the Table peaked at No. 11. The sales discrepancy makes sense. Although DMB has always attracted a straight-laced audience -- preppies, frat boys, office drones blowing off steam -- the group arrived on the scene with a rather unconventional look and sound. Here was a multiracial, Southern rock-fusion act whose elliptical songs featured violin, saxophone, and tangled acoustic grooves informed by jazz and world music. They were a jam band, in other words, but not in a rootsy guitar-driven Dead or Allmans kind of way.

Hootie & the Blowfish's 'Cracked Rear View' at 20

Up front was the group’s namesake, a South African-born singer and guitarist whose pained facial expressions and twitchy leg movements made him a most unlikely rock star. Behind him was Carter Beauford, the drummer with the billion-piece kit, and off to the side was Stefan Lessard, who played loads of notes on a bass he wore up around his chin. Saxophonist LeRoi Moore and fiddler Boyd Tinsley cut more impressive figures, but these guys weren't exactly hip. They made Hootie look like the Velvet Underground.

Fortunately, Dave and the gang weren’t aiming for cool, and thanks to Lillywhite, they weren’t looking tweak the sound that had already made them popular. Under the Table and Dreaming is full of cryptic songs that start out dark and nervous and explode into shiny sing-alongs just right for summer concerts. While the disc fell short of the Top 10, it paved the way for a No. 2 follow-up, Crash, and then six chart-toppers in a row.

Read on to get a track-by-track take on this, the record that launched a thousand parking-lot ragers and turned a Charlottesville bartender and his motley companions into lords of the amphitheater circuit.

“The Best of What’s Around”: Dave wisely introduces himself not with a tortured rumination on sex or death, but rather with an optimistic jam-pop earworm about finding solace in others. When he sings, “Turns out not where but who you’re with that really matters,” he captures the sense of community already brewing among the DMB faithful. From Moore’s bright sax solo to those “hey-la, hey-la” vocals at the end, this one’s engineered to lively up the masses.

“What Would You Say”: An unusual pick for lead single, “What Would You Say” features a silly lyric and copious amounts of Blues Traveler leader John Popper’s harmonica -- an instrument not heard from again on the disc. It’s hardly indicative of the DMB sound, and yet its kooky-catchy vibe was a good fit for radio. Curios newbies enticed into buying the CD must have been relieved. This is by far the weakest of the 12 tracks.

“Satellite”: The rigid guitar riff fits well with the paranoid lyrics, all about those omnipresent spy machines glistening in the sky. In a way, they’re kind of pretty, those satellites, and that might explain the chorus, wherein Dave sings of the changing seasons and good things being replaced -- presumably by other good things. It’s a dark-to-light trajectory DMB returns to again and again, and on the hook, Dave’s falsetto and Moore’s saxophone go together like khaki shorts and a polo.

“Rhyme & Reason”: The guitars are even more anxious than they are on “Satellite,” and the lyrics tell of a guy who’s “all locked up in this dark place.” Tinsley’s violin shrieks give the chorus a sinister feel, as do Dave’s growling vocals: “My head won’t leave my head alone.”

“Typical Situation”: Once again, bleak verses lead into bouncy choruses, though Dave insistence that “everybody’s happy, everybody’s free” isn’t exactly reassuring. “Typical Situation” seemingly touches on consumerism (“too many choices”) and conformity (“Why are you different? Why are you that way?”), and despite Moore’s spirited flute playing, this one boils down to six words: “It all comes down to nothing.”

“Dancing Nancies”: On this vaguely Middle Eastern tune, DMB takes the dark-to-light thing to the next level. The verses -- all about wanting desperately to be someone else --read like discarded Adam Duritz lyrics from the first Counting Crows record. Then the hook hits, and it’s all, “What’s the use in worrying? What’s the use in hurrying?” Maybe the nothingness Dave talks about on the previous track isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we should turn and turn and “almost become dizzy.”

“Ants Marching”: On arguably his most beloved song, Dave spares us the maudlin musical build-ups and gets right to the feel-good stuff. Lyrically, of course, “Ants” is way darker than that six-note lead riff suggests. It’s about the millions of worker ants who get too bogged down in the bullshit of daily life to take stock of the good things. “Lights down, you up and die,” Dave sings at the end. It’s a fitting warning for collegiate fans getting ready to join the workforce. Gather ye rosebuds -- or whatever types of buds you like -- while ye may.

“Lover Lay Down”: With its New Age-y cymbals and sax work and gentle acoustic strumming, “Lover Lay Down” is as sweet as “Crash Into Me” -- the breakout single from DMB’s next album -- is creepy. When DMB fans fall in love and get married, this is what they should play for their first dance, provided they can pick an appropriate live version without coming to blows.

“Jimi Thing”: This song’s title could refer to a joint, a condom, a Jimi Hendrix song --anything that mellows you out. It doesn’t get much more laidback than the verses, wherein Dave strums a happy-cloud chord progression and talks about getting stoned and gazing up at the ceiling. “If you can keep me floating, just for a while,” he sings at the chorus, implying that the good times can’t last forever. Moore hints at the same idea with the moody sax in the final minute.

“Warehouse”: The frantic guitar riff and sawing violin get under the skin, and that’s fitting, because lyrically, Dave X-rays the body in search of the soul. “Bags packed on a plane,” his death-obsessed narrator sings during a Spanish-y dance part that comes out of nowhere. “Hopefully to heaven.” “Warehouse” alternately suggests terror and relief, and the final 20 seconds present some intertwining of those emotions.

“Pay For What You Get”: DMB gets jazzy on this pragmatic reworking of a popular idiom. To paraphrase an earlier track, everybody’s crazy, nobody’s free. At least Dave leaves the big door open for the possibility of contentment: “I’m OK,” he sings at the end, reassuring friends who think he’s flipped his lid. “I’m OK.” The best moment: Beauford’s jazz-cat snare roll on the “fly away…stay” bit. It’s like a flock of pigeons taking flight, daddy-o.

“#34”: Listeners who either skipped ahead 23 tracks or were too stoned to get up and press stop on the CD player got a special surprise with “#34,” a cool-jazz instrumental whose soothing sax melody gives Under the Table a peaceful ending. Or does it? The tune’s final note rings like a question mark, providing great fodder for late-night bull sessions about God and love and why the party can't last forever.