The Lillywhite Sessions Album reviews.
Release Date: 03.01
Record label: not released
by: matt halverson
In the age of Napster, we've begun to believe the music our favorite artists create belongs to us - heck we're fans; we're entitled to it. Ever since Dave Matthews Band decided to shelve the album completed during its Spring 2000 studio sessions with Steve Lillywhite in favor of the decidedly glossier, pop-infused production of Glen Ballard on Everyday, fans of the band have been clamoring for the finished product of those the recordings. It didn't help that the band road-tested several of those songs ("Grey Street," "Bartender" and "Grace is Gone" among them) on its summer tour, effectively whetting the fans' collective appetite for an album that wouldn't be. After the recordings were leaked to the Internet in late March, however, fans finally got their hands on The Lillywhite Sessions and heard what they had been missing. And they had missed out on a lot.
Though simple and vaguely uninspired, the title tells more about the album than anything the band's members could have slapped on it. It conjures an image of Dave and his supporting cast sitting around a mic in the studio bouncing song ideas off of each other. And that's exactly how Sessions sounds. Loose, rough and raw (in direct contrast with the slick, ultra-tight production of Everyday), the arrangements give each member a chance to spread out and weave himself into the songs. Violinist Boyd Tinsley and saxophonist Leroi Moore do an impressive job of harmonizing and taking the spotlight without inundating the songs with misplaced solos. Drummer Carter Beauford employs his vast arsenal of wood blocks, cow bells and cymbals, exhibiting his complex style that is noticeably absent from Everyday. The recordings' unfinished quality is no doubt the result of the album never receiving the finishing touches applied to a studio release (Beauford can be heard counting off the beat at the beginning of several tracks), but instead of cheapening the music, it adds an improvisational, live energy usually found only in DMB's concerts.
Thematically, Sessions picks up where 1998's Before These Crowded Streets left off, but here Matthews seems intent on retreating further into the dark corner he retired to in writing Streets. With titles like "Busted Stuff," "Digging a Ditch" and "Grey Street," the direction of Sessions is painfully obvious before the music starts. In Matthews' world, women always leave ("Grace is Gone," "Busted Stuff") and life is generally unbearable ("Grey Street"), but there's always alcohol to soothe the pain ("Bartender"). The somber nature of this collection of songs sounds all the more depressing against Everyday's saccharine blandness, but given the band's previous releases, it's much more believable.
For all its darkness, Sessions can't help but still sound fun at times. "Grey Street," a story of several people who have all but given up on life, is one of the catchier, happiest sounding songs on the album. The mixing of heavy lyrics with music to which his devout followers can dance is one of Matthews' greatest strengths, and he executes it here with a talent he has yet to show off.
Much has been made of Matthews' decision to switch to the electric guitar for Everyday, and the attention was well deserved. Where he had been relegated to the position of a rhythm guitarist on previous albums (Matthews has joked about Lillywhite's propensity for turning his guitar down until it was almost non-existent), he shoved his way to the front of the music with his dirty, grinding play on Everyday. On Sessions, however, he has yet to plug in, and his playing takes on a more muted, modest tone, setting the stage for Tinsley and Moore's texturing.
The time they spent with Ballard did teach them to be a little more musically concise, but the lessons had yet to be learned when Sessions was recorded. For the most part, the looser arrangements and longer song lengths work well. "Bartender" clocks in at just over ten minutes, the majority of which is a concert-worthy jam, but it never seems nearly as laborious or overstretched as "Monkey Man," which is only half as long.
Sessions and Everyday couldn't be more different, both musically and lyrically. The former is unpolished, and gritty, while the latter is honey-glazed pop. But despite its dark thematic texturing and rehashing of formulas off which the band has made a living for the three albums preceding Everyday, the pirated studio sessions find Dave Matthews Band doing what they do best - playing loose fun music that's tailor-made for live performances.