DMB’s Away From the World: A Song-By-Song Analysis

2009 was an interesting year for the Dave Matthews Band.

It was less than a year since the passing of saxophonist LeRoi Moore that the band put together an album based around praising Moore’s life. Rock producer Rob Cavallo was brought in to help put that album together and in June, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” was released.

Big Whiskey turned out to be a strong album, but it didn’t capture what DMB was. Electric guitarist Tim Reynolds was all over the album, and in a bad way. Dave’s song-writing musically and lyrically was cheesy at best, and in the end, only a couple of songs off the album will be memorable within the fanbase.

Three years later, DMB reunited with Steve Lillywhite, the producer of their first three albums, and he immediately went to work in making the Dave Matthews Band what it was in the early 90’s.

First thing Lillywhite did was bump Reynolds into the background where he was for “Under the Tables and Dreaming,” “Crash,” and “Before These Crowded Streets” — the last of the three featured a more electric than acoustic version of Reynolds, but still in the background as a compliment.

Lillywhite then made Boyd Tinsley relevant again. One thing that made DMB so unique was the presence of a violin, and every album after Lillywhite’s departure never fully utilized the talents of Tinsley. Lillywhite made Tinsley relevant in the DMB sound again, and it is made evident in the very first track, “Broken Things” (explained later).

Overall, this album, the eighth in DMB’s 21-year history, showed a more mature version of the 90’s sensation that took colleges by storm and helped shape the last great decade for radio hits. Lillywhite captured Dave’s unique acoustic guitar work, found Tinsley and made drummer Carter Beauford’s playing pop much like it did throughout the Big Three (affectionately named by the fan base).

Here is a look at my take on the 11 tracks that make up Away From the World. For the week, you can listen to the full album, which is being streamed on iTunes:

Broken Things – My first thought of this track was, “Wow!” This could be the best way DMB has opened an album since “Pantala Naga Pampa/Rapunzel” opened up their 1998 album, BTCS. The song just feels like a mature version of what DMB is about: great riff, decent and fun lyrics and a sexy violin solo by Tinsley that shows he is back in the spotlight with the band. This song is going to be a monster live and is quickly turning into a fan favorite.

Belly Belly Nice – If Lillywhite got his hands on “Shake Me Like A Monkey,” this is exactly what would have happened to the opening track of Big Whiskey. Lillywhite found a way to blend and make two horn players he’s never worked with before, Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross, fit into the DMB sound in the studio.

Mercy – Mercy is the lead single and the band couldn’t have picked a better lead single for this album. The message, though cliche and kinda cheesy, is in with the times and the music and mix of this song is just flawless and gorgeous. One thing that stood out to me on the first listen of this song was Jeff Coffin’s play in the outro. Coffin’s airy, haunting sax line resembles a lot of what Moore brought to the band’s previous albums. Maybe it was a slight nod at the quintet’s founder.

Gaucho – This was the first studio song released to the public so I had a lot of time to listen and digest this song. I could very easily see this being the second single on the album. Gaucho boasts one of Matthews’ most creative guitar riffs in the last 10 years, and the rest of the band really makes this song pop. Lyrically it’s cheesy like Mercy, but the delivery of the lyrics make it bearable. Coffin and Ross created a fantastic horn line throughout the whole song, and Coffin’s sax solo while the kids sing is really fantastic.

Sweet – Matthews probably took a page out of Eddie Vedder’s latest chapter in music by picking up a ukelele that was given to him as a gift and creating a song with it. Sweet is one of the weaker songs on the album, but it has garnered a lot of positive feedback for what the band did to the song after it started out only as a Matthews solo song. Lastly, Tinsley’s subtle violin playing towards the end of this song is perfect. Very “Cry Freedom”-like in the way that it adds depth to Matthews’ singing.

The Riff – Never before has Matthews written a song like The Riff. It’s everything “Time Bomb” should have been on Big Whiskey with the straight rock and intense build-up. Lyrically it’s the best song on the whole album. Coffin plays the flute on it, an instrument that Moore would use on occasion in the past. Tinsely’s playing is again very subtle, but noticeable during the build-up to the chorus. The end of the song is nothing short of brilliant as well, especially with Reynolds’ solo that has already blown people away in the live setting.

Belly Full – This is the shortest track on the album, coming in at less than two minutes. But it is very reminiscent of #40 in the sense that it’s a short and sweet acoustic song. This song could very easily be a solo acoustic encore song, or used as a segue into another song during a show live.

If Only – This song is an absolute snooze-fest in the live setting. But like the wizard he is, Lillywhite made it pop in the studio setting, especially with the hammond organ being played in the background by Roger Smith, the album’s only guest. Matthews’ vocal range on this is also pretty nice, as he uses the falsetto in quite a few songs this album. Lastly, the outro is very soothing and nice, but wished it was jammed out a little but more on the studio version much like it had been live.

Before I get to these last three songs, I want to say they required a lot of listening to. There was so much going on in all three songs, so I will try and give the best, accurate description of all three.

Rooftop – If “Rhyme & Reason” and “Dreams of Our Fathers” had a baby, it would be Rooftop. This song starts out sounding like a tune off “Everyday” but quickly takes up a life of it’s own. Reynold’s electric guitar work is superb on this. It’s very tasteful but still in your face much like Reynolds knows how to do. His solo towards the end is very Eric Johnson-esque. This is also Carter Beauford’s best song on the drums. He drives the song harder than anything else on the album, reminding me of the intensity he brought to songs like “Drive In, Drive Out,” and “Two Step.” There’s another small Tinsley solo. Ross solos on this song as well, using the mute and absolutely tearing up his part. Coffin’s use of the bari sax is also very powerful and helps drive the song.

Snow Outside – Snow Outside starts out slow, and lyrically it’s very very good. Coffin comes in with a gorgeous sax line that’s reminiscent of his work with the Flecktones. Reynolds is on the acoustic this song, and his slide work is very tasteful, giving the song a bit of a folky feel. Then all of a sudden, this song gets kicked into over-drive with Carter’s and Coffin’s playing at the midway point. Reynolds intensifies his acoustic solo and the band crescendo’s into an incredible “Last Stop”-like outro that perfectly leads into the final track with footsteps.

Drunken Soldier – At nine minutes and 42 seconds, this is the longest studio song in DMB’s entire catalog. It starts out with a brief intro by Matthews and Reynolds, and you can hear talking in the background by Beauford (an effect Lillywhite has used in the past by leaving the studio microphones on to gather noise to put in the background). Then the main riff of the song starts up. This intro is nothing short of beautiful and powerful. From Reynold’s guitar and Beauford’s driving drums to the horns, it’s powerful. And then Tinsley brings it back down with a tear-inducing violin line that can only be captured by listening. The lyrics leave a little something to be desired, but with how gorgeous the music is, that becomes a quick afterthought. The song pulls a Beatles “Abbey Road: Golden Slumbers” type shift and goes from DMB to something that straight up resembles “Time/Breathe Reprise” off the Pink Floyd masterpiece “Dark Side of the Moon.” And if the similarities to Pink Floyd weren’t enough, the voices, slide guitar, harmonies and sound effects sound like a straight-up tribute to Floyd/Beatles. Overall, this song requires multiple listens to fully grasp its complexity and beauty.

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