Getting to the essential Dave Matthews

CD REVIEWS

February 04, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds

Live at Luther College (RCA/Bama Rags 67755)

Because the Dave Matthews Band boasts both deep jazz roots and distinctive instrumental voices, the group is often lumped in the jam band movement. Among critics, this is done as an act of dismissal, the presumption being that any band with decent songs wouldn't need to waste so much time on improvisation.

Fans of the Matthews Band counter that the solos are secondary -- it's the songs that matter most. But because the Matthews Band's recordings are so full of instrumental flash, it's hard to imagine how those songs would sound stripped to just guitar and voice.

Well, we don't have to imagine anymore. "Live at Luther College" offers 22 Matthews songs stripped to the bare essentials. Performed by Matthews and fellow acoustic guitarist Tim Reynolds, these arrangements feature no sax, no violin, no drums and no bass. A genuinely unplugged performance, in other words.

Musicians have long held that any song worth its salt should stand up when reduced to just guitar and voice, and "Live at Luther College" certainly puts Matthews' songbook to the test. And for the most part, the tunes come through with flying colors.

Granted, some titles were fairly unplugged to begin with. The full-band version of "Crash Into Me," for instance, owes so much to the circular strumming of Matthews' acoustic that reducing the arrangement to two guitars is the work of an instant.

But there are also songs that seemed total band numbers on the original albums, and yet work wonderfully well in their acoustic incarnation. Although the sound of the acoustic "Two Step" is much smaller than the full-band version, the song's dynamic range remains pretty much intact, while the crashing chords of "Tripping Billies" almost sound better on guitar than when bolstered by sax and violin.

There's nothing from the band's last album, "Before These Crowded Streets" -- although newly released, "Live at Luther College" was recorded back in 1996 -- and much of the material comes from "Under the Table and Dreaming" and the indie album "Remember Two Things." But that actually works to Matthews' advantage, as the relative unfamiliarity of "Minarets" and "Christmas Song" brings a certain freshness to the album.

It should also be added that "Live at Luther College" won't even disappoint those who actually enjoy the jam-band aspects of the DMB. True, there are no pyrotechnics on the order of Carter Beauford's drumming, but Reynolds adds enough fleet-fingered flash to the tunes to keep the album from ever seeming too singer/songwritery. ***

Pop/rock

Collective Soul

Dosage (Atlantic 83162)

There's nothing particularly fashionable about Collective Soul's sound. It doesn't chase the latest trends or cop the hottest beats; if anything, the band seems slightly behind the curve, still content with such tried-but-true styles as hard rock and neo-psychedelia. So why even bother with the band's new album? Because "Dosage" is packed with the one thing that defies trendiness: good, catchy songs. From the menacing thrum of "Heavy" to the kaleidoscopic colors of "Generate," "Dosage" is chockablock with catchy moments, a near-perfect blend of infectious melody and delectable ear-candy. It hardly matters that head Soul man Ed Roland is as likely to evoke Foreigner as the Beatles; if anything, it's his ability to evoke several worlds in one song -- like the way "Slow" draws equally from early BeeGees and "Heroes"-era Bowie -- that makes this "Dosage" so addictive. ***1/2

April March

Chrominance Decoder (Ideal 04881-0010)

On paper, April March's "Chrominance Decoder" looks like a perfect pop bauble. Produced by French lounge music auteur Bertrand Burgalat, with several tracks remixed by the Dust Brothers, its hip pop credentials are impeccable. Moreover, March's girlish singing suggests some otherworldly blend of blithe innocence and jaded ennui -- sort of like Britny Spears channeling Nico. Trouble is, she can't carry that off for a whole album. When she's singing en Francais, the bilingual March conveys a certain je ne sais quoi, delivering the melody with suave sophistication. But her English singing is so blunt and clunky you can't help but notice how artless her writing is. April March, it seems, really does lose something in the translation. **

Soundtrack

'The '60s'

Original NBC Motion Picture Soundtrack (Mercury 314 538 743)

Could there have been any easier assignment in soundtrack land than to compile songs for a project as obvious as NBC's made-for-TV movie "The '60s"? Take a few protest songs, a couple of Motown songs, a dash of acid rock and a smattering of superstars, and bang -- you're done. So why does "The '60s" bungle the job so badly? Some of the problem has to do with absurd omissions -- No Hendrix? No Beatles? And you call this "The '60s"? -- and some of the problem is poor choices in what is included. It's great that the album includes the Byrds, but why do so with such a nothing song as "Draft Morning"? As for the Bob Dylan/Joan Osborne remake of "Chimes of Freedom," frankly, guys, you got the wrong Joan. *

* = poor

** = fair

*** = good

**** = excellent

Pub Date: 02/04/99

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