RCA Records, 2002
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/03/2002
The advent of the Internet and music file-sharing has brought us many things - a raft of exciting new music from heretofore unknown acts, a ton of bootlegs that amount to grand theft of the artists' work, and Busted Stuff. But don't worry, this is not a setup for the punch-line "the good, the bad and the ugly." More like the cool, the uncool, and the artistically compromised.
Busted Stuff - or most of it, anyway - saw life first as a set of master tapes from recording sessions the Dave Matthews Band held in early 2000 with Steve Lillywhite producing. Near the end of the recording process, however, Matthews decided the music wasn't taking them anywhere fresh, and elected to scrap the entire project and start over with a new producer. The end result was Everyday, a strong but very different album for the eclectic DMB -- tighter, slicker and more mainstream than anything they'd issued before.
The vigilant fan base that loves the DMB best as a no-holds-barred jam band fought back. The master tapes found their way to the Internet and became the infamous Lillywhite Sessions, surely the most bootlegged recording of 2000-01. What's an artist to do? In this case, they opted to go back into the studio at the conclusion of the Everyday tour and re-record most of the material from the Lillywhite Sessions. So, what we have here amounts to Matthews throwing up his hands to his audience and saying "you asked for it…"
Matthews' rumored objection to the original set of songs that form the core of this album is that they were too unrelentingly dark. Listening to Busted Stuff, it's hard to disagree. There are sublime moments of musicality, to be sure - "Grey Street" in particular is close to quintessential DMB in the vibrant interplay between Matthews' acoustic guitar, Leroi Moore's sax, Boyd Tinsley's violin, Stefan Lessard's bass and Carter Beauford's drumming.
But lyrically, this an album that puts the "eak" in bleak. Everywhere you turn, Matthews is droning and/or wailing about loss, death, drinking to forget, the absence of God and the grey hopelessness of life. The only respites are the two new songs, the shimmering "Where Are You Going" and the jazzy, searching "You Never Know," along with the reconsidered "Kit Kat Jam," reincarnated here as an energetic funk instrumental showcasing Moore's brilliant sax work and Beauford's effortlessly versatile drumming.
Other highlights from the Lillywhite tracks include the flat-out gorgeous drown-my-sorrows lament "Grace Is Gone," and "Raven," a punchy track that gives Tinsley and Moore a chance to cut loose in a way they never could in the grip of Everyday's tight, keyboard-heavy arrangements. Notable also is the closing "Bartender," a minor opus in which the band whips itself into an instrumental fury that's both beautiful and foreboding, behind a lyric about - you guessed it -- hitting rock bottom emotionally.
Beyond the depressed and depressing lyrics, though, there's something important missing from Busted Stuff. The players have their virtuoso chops intact, but it all amounts to admirable window-dressing when the central figure seems disengaged. Matthews, know for his soulful, chameleon-like voice, barely registers vocally on much of this album. Yes, he employs many of his old tricks, swerving from falsetto to growl and holding notes for six- and eight-counts, but where on other albums these vocal devices seem organic and genuine, here they often feel artificial. Matthews plows through like the pro he is, but sounds for all the world like someone who's been forced to record these songs, rather than someone who believes in them -- which, of course, is in some sense what happened.
The DMB's fans seem generally pleased with this album, though some still can't resist pumping up the Lillywhite versions like they're some lost Holy Grail. Personally, though, I think this is a classic case of an artist caving in to his audience, rather than standing up for what his own instincts were telling him (i.e., move on). Some of these are good songs, but it seems clear they aren't the ones Dave Matthews wanted to sing right now. He should have stood his ground.