Dave Matthews Band
’s Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
wears its emotions on its sleeve – and in its title. “GrooGrux King” refers to LeRoi Moore, the group’s longtime saxophonist who died in August of 2008 after an ATV accident, and Big Whiskey
repeatedly touches on mortality while reflecting on the musician’s passing. DMB fans will note that Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
has a darker, heavier sound than previous records, but casual observers might have difficulty distinguishing this new album from the band’s already well-established aesthetic, for better or worse.
The Many Stages of Grief
The Dave Matthews Band had already begun work on Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King before Moore’s death, but while it’s hard to know how much of the final product was conceived or shaped in response to his passing, it’s clear that storm clouds and sadness hover over the proceedings. The instrumental album opener, “Grux,” is powered by Moore’s sax solo, kicking off the record on a note of wistful remembrance. From there, Dave Matthews, the band’s singer and principal songwriter, explores his grief in different ways. On “Shake Me Like a Monkey,” he’s chasing his blues away with some good, naughty loving. With “Why I Am,” he’s focusing on fond memories. Elsewhere, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King succumbs to anger, dabbles in philosophical musings and tries to find relief in life’s simple pleasures. Even when Matthews doesn’t reference Moore’s death overtly, his songs’ emotions are most certainly affected by his absence.
A Return to DMB's Roots
DMB fans, arguably some of the most loyal and fervent of any band’s, should recognize Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
as not just a salute to Moore but also a return to the group’s jam-band roots. In the ‘00s, DMB have moved away some from the hippie-ish eclecticism of ‘90s albums like Under the Table and Dreaming
, pursuing a more pop sound. Big Whiskey
won’t be confused with a Grateful Dead
record, but it does have a looser, more band-centric approach than their last few efforts. Perhaps the best example of this is “Time Bomb,” which eventually morphs from a swaying mid-tempo number into a raging horn-heavy track, showcasing DMB’s enthusiasm for melding rock, jazz, funk and easy-listening adult contemporary into a tuneful package.
But although Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King represents a tougher-sounding, more emotionally direct album from Dave Matthews Band, the group’s commitment to tasteful, melodic arrangements remains both a blessing and a curse. Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King is unquestionably a pleasurable listen – the album’s 13 tracks are mixed with exquisite polish so that they sparkle and shine. But that bright, clean sound can grow repetitive, resulting in an album that’s so tasteful it grows tedious. In addition, DMB’s well-established sonic trademarks can be pretty irritating if you’re not entirely infatuated with this band. For instance, the funk-rock of “Shake Me Like a Monkey” doesn’t have much swing to it, while the jazzy introspection of “Spaceman” possesses the same kind of ornate arrangement that so many DMB love songs do. Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, like all the group’s records, can be praised for its refined style, but when you’re making an album about pain, death and sex, a more hot-blooded approach helps. Unfortunately, Matthews and his cohorts don’t seem to have it in them to be legitimately raw or unhinged.
Finding the Gems
If an overly polite gentility pervades Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
, that doesn’t keep individual songs from resonating. Despite its dippy musings, “Funny the Way It Is” succeeds as a piece of enormously accessible pop songwriting. Likewise, “Seven” and “You and Me” are elegant love ditties, and “Why I Am” rides a taut groove for a story about celebrating life in order to get over personal pain. LeRoi Moore may be gone, but Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
argues that the Dave Matthews Band have decided that the best way to honor his legacy is to stick to what they’ve always done. It’s up to the listener to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
'Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King' – Best Tracks:
“Funny the Way It Is” (Purchase/Download
“Lying in the Hands of God” (Purchase/Download
“Why I Am” (Purchase/Download
“You and Me” (Purchase/Download
Release date – June 2, 2009