Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
DMB fans know this well, having suffered through close to a decade of albums that have found the band fumbling in the dark for a way to alter and expand its approach to recording; since parting ways with former producer Steve Lillywhite, the band has gone from the Glen Ballard-produced misfire Everyday to the Mark Batson-produced letdown Stand Up, with a minor fan controversy over some unreleased recordings in between. Though they continue to sell out shows – and release live albums at a furious pace – they’ve seemed increasingly reluctant to deal with the headache of trying to capture that energy in the studio; their latest album, the ominously titled Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, is their first in four years.
It’s hard not to lower expectations going into GrooGrux. Any time a band with enough live chops to knock out an album in a few days takes this long to finish a project, they’ve probably spent more time getting caught up in details than actually working on songs – and along those same lines, an album title as unwieldy as this one is often an effort to compensate for decidedly less colorful musical contents. Not this time, though: Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King not only puts the brakes on the Dave Matthews Band’s creative slide, it’s perhaps their best album to date – a sweaty, loose-limbed beast of a record that vacuum seals the band’s creative spark and doesn’t lose any of its flavor.
But let’s go back to that title again, just for a moment. It sounds like nonsense, but as hardcore fans of the band already know, the GrooGrux King was saxophonist LeRoi Moore, the founding DMB member who unexpectedly died last year after suffering injuries in an ATV accident. Moore’s last recordings with the band are included here, and his presence is deeply felt both musically – the album opens and closes with the sound of his horn – and lyrically, thanks to lines that either seem to reference Moore or name-check him directly. It’s the type of tribute that can easily turn maudlin, but that never happens here; although the band has often struggled to strike a balance between its bright, outsized sound and Matthews’ frequently dark, strange lyrics, GrooGrux blends the two extremes just about perfectly.
Credit must be given to Rob Cavallo, the rock producer du jour who has helmed projects for everyone from Paris Hilton to Green Day over the last half-decade. Though Cavallo has been guilty in the past of taking a heavy-handed approach to his projects – take, for instance, the albums he produced for the Goo Goo Dolls – he mostly stays out of the way here, adding various subtle sweeteners to the borders of the mix while leaving the band plenty of room to swagger. This approach is evident right off the bat with "Shake Me Like a Monkey," the funky, horn-drenched opening track that roars out of the gate with a blast of brass and rolls nimbly through some nice changes before leading into leadoff single "Funny the Way It Is," which segues from a moody, guitar-led intro into a chorus that blooms wide over a syncopated beat. There’s a palpable sense of melancholy here, but it’s offset by a bright arrangement and some suitably dramatic production.
"Lying in the Hands of God" strongly recalls the band’s earlier ballads, rocking lush harmonies over a gently plangent melody and a swaying groove that offers a quiet pause before the bright horns and strutting, percussive groove of the instant earworm "Why I Am." The band’s rhythm section hasn’t sounded this alive in years; where recent efforts found them sounding fenced in on up-tempo numbers, GrooGrux gives drummer Carter Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard plenty of room to roam, opening up a wide bottom end on tracks like the slinky "Spaceman," earthy "Seven," and future live favorite "Alligator Pie."
In addition to dialing up the funk quotient, GrooGrux does a fine job of taking the band back to its early sound – witness the twisty chord progressions of "Squirm" and quiet beauty of "My Baby Blue" – while still finding room for less familiar ingredients both instrumental (the sitar heard on "Squirm") and compositional (the subtly stacked, AAA-ready arrangement of the knockout closing track, "You and Me"). The album really only stumbles once, with the airless ballad "Dive In," a track that would have sounded more at home on the slick Everyday; beyond that, whether focused by tragedy or simply back in stride, the band delivers one of the most consistently enjoyable collections of grown-up rock & roll we’re likely to hear all year. Long live the King.