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Dave Matthews goes pop


Ever since they first hit it big, back in ’94, Dave Matthews Band have seemed a little out of place among the stars of Top 40 radio. That’s a compliment, of course: in a world of prefab pop confections, they’re a skilled, road-tested band who value music infinitely more than image. But in another sense, it’s grounds for complaint: next to the latest mega-production from Britney or ’N Sync, their polite brand of acoustic rock barely stands out. In recent years, even lesser Dave-alikes like Vertical Horizon and Barenaked Ladies have managed to beat the genuine article at the singles game.

Dave Matthews Band haven’t gone totally pop on their fourth disc, Everyday (RCA, in stores this Tuesday), but they have taken a few steps in that direction — and it suits them well. After working with one-time U2 producer Steve Lillywhite on their first three albums, the band enlisted corporate-rock bigshot Glen Ballard, who’s most famous for his work with Alanis Morissette. As is his custom, Ballard did more than just hit the record button. He invited Matthews out to his studio in LA, where the two quickly began writing together without the rest of the band. All 12 of the songs on Everyday hail from those sessions.

Ballard can hardly be considered a foolproof song doctor these days. The second Alanis disc pretty much flopped, as did his most recent project, No Doubt’s Return of Saturn (Interscope). But Matthews is the most musical collaborator he’s ever had, and Everyday turns out to be everything a Dave Matthews Band album should be: fun, thoughtful, and casually virtuosic. It’s also full of surprises, the biggest of which comes right off the bat: that’s Matthews playing electric guitar — not his signature acoustic — at the beginning of “I Did It,” the first track and lead single. Along with the frontman’s slippery, Hendrixian funk rhythm playing, the tune features some gritty R&B-flavored piano stabs from Ballard. It’s a pleasant, upbeat ditty that will appeal to fans of the band’s early hits, with a few extra bells and whistles that bring the hooks closer to the forefront.

“I Did It” sets the tone for the rest of the album, which has plenty more electric guitar from Matthews and glitzy production work from Ballard. It’s a safe bet DMB will still jam the night away at football stadiums around the country this summer (they’re booked to play Foxboro Stadium on June 16; you can also catch them on Saturday Night Live this weekend), but they’re reined in more than ever on disc. Gone are super-drummer Carter Beauford’s lickety-split hi-hat licks and much of the soloing from violinist Boyd Tinsley and saxophonist Leroi Moore. Fans of Matthews’s talented supporting cast needn’t fret, though — the disc is full of the group’s trademark jazz-influenced unison melodies, and their ensemble playing has never been tighter.

Matthews has been writing more and more love songs as his career goes on, and that trend continues on Everyday. When he promises his lover, “When the world ends/We’ll be burning one,” on “When the World Ends,” you can practically hear a stadium full of kids erupting in applause. The rest of the song is tenderer in sentiment — it’s a tambourine-shaking answer to “Crush,” the hit ballad from the ’98 DMB album Before These Crowded Streets (RCA). “The Space Between” deals with the rockier side of romance but sounds even more arena-ready: Bic-flicking U2 guitar melodies flare up during the chorus, and Matthews sounds as if he’d turned into Peter Gabriel. He brings his baby out to party on “So Right,” urging her to “stay up and make some memories” as the band strike up a finely mechanized Top 40 dance beat.

When Matthews transforms from loverman to closing-time philosopher, his lyrics don’t fare as well. “Dreams of Our Fathers” (“I don’t want to wake up/Lost in the dreams of our fathers”) and “What You Are” (“Don’t you know/If you live life/Then you become what you are”) are enough to make you long for the perfectly stupid DMB days of “I eat too much.” The Latin-flavored Carlos Santana showcase “Mother Father” is the kind of unctuous save-the-world mantra that kept Santana’s career in the dumps all those years; its smooth jazz underpinnings make it a low musical point as well.

But Matthews gets his pan-cultural Peter Gabriel moment right on the title track, a sweet spiritual featuring South African singer Vusi Mahlasela that closes the disc. “All you need is/All you want is/Love,” sings the frontman, slipping into a gorgeous falsetto as the band play softly behind him. A playful nod to tradition on an album that’s mostly about looking ahead, it’s marked by the same new-found sense of musical economy that — at its finest — makes Everyday a welcome step forward for Dave Matthews Band.

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