Dave Matthews Band’s _Before These Crowded Streets_ Turns 20
Previously, we posted 20-year retrospectives on Under the Table and Dreaming (https://relix.com/
For all its ambition, creativity and mainstream appeal, it’s curious — though not at all surprising — that the most daring and rewarding record of Dave Matthews Band’s career, 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, still does not get its critical due two decades on.
The 20-year anniversary of the record’s release (Streets turns two decades old on April 28) gives opportunity not just to reflect on DMB’s magnum opus from the beginning, but also to analyze its reputation in the present.
Scan almost any list of the best albums of 1998 and many great reliables are consistently clustered near the top, including Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, OutKast’s Aquemini, Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty, Madonna’s Ray of Light, Elliott Smith’s XO and Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children. All those artists made great (some of them career-defining) LPs in ’98.
You don’t see Before These Crowded Streets placed their company, and that’s a bit bizarre given how fearless and experimental (yet far from weird) the album is and how lists from back-when were still prone to lob love at mainstream rock acts.
But maybe it’s on account of DMB not being viewed as a rock act or a definable band that BTCS was sold short. Absent that, the quintet didn’t have a core of critics in their corner.
“Maybe because they didn’t have a genre,” Steve Lillywhite, who produced DMB’s first three major-label albums, said. “Maybe you couldn’t call them pop and you couldn’t call them jazz and you certainly couldn’t call them rock. What were they?”
They were on their way to becoming the biggest band in America, and that also seems to have been a problem, at least in terms of getting more respect for their art. If you go back and check, with few exceptions since the mid-1980s, few megabands have pulled off widely winning over tastemakers while selling out arenas (and stadiums), even when said bands happen to put out the most complete/best album of their careers.
Which is exactly what DMB did in 1998. Everything about the album bettered the band’s standing, with the exception of down-the-middle reviews. In that regard, it’s a rarity.
For context, let’s remember where the music world was back then. Grunge was long gone, and the bubblepop era was on its way to the TRL’ing of mainstream music. Radio still mattered. The definition of “alternative” was changing almost by the month and, regrettably, nü-metal was coming around the corner and sporting inappropriate facial hair.
The iPod was three years away and Napster was not yet in existence. Major labels were still counting on their biggest acts to move a million units within six weeks or less of a record’s release — something that’s aberrational today.
So with DMB, Before These Crowded Streets is vital not just for its reputation-bending sound, but also its history-making entrance. In 1998, Titanic had taken over American popular culture that winter-into-spring. Movie theaters continuously sold out showings of the film, and the soundtrack was ruling the charts. The movie was one of the biggest phenomenons in American pop culture history.
Then DMB released Streets and ended the Titanic soundtrack’s ridiculous four-month run atop the Billboard 200. In doing so, BTCS gave DMB its first of what is now six consecutive No. 1 releases upon launch. (DMB awaits to see if it can go for an industry-record seven straight when it unleashes Come Tomorrow into the wild on June 8.)
Looking back at more than 25 years worth of the band’s history, few dates have as much meaning as April 28, 1998. To debut at No. 1 for the first time, to knock off Titanic, to do so in advance of playing their first stadium shows and make such an inspired but different-sounding album, it hurled the group into another level of fame and success.
It’s fair to hold some creative missteps against DMB in the years since, but BTCS has been overlooked by the general public for too long.
“I think it was time to knock them back a little bit,” Lillywhite said. “The first album was a big hit, breakout album, and then they did exactly what most bands don’t do: the next album was even bigger. … Perhaps it had an element of progressive rock about it that was perhaps considered a little bit uncool.”
Uncool. Of course. It’s never been conventional in American society to boast about DMB’s music and still define one’s self as having fashionable, contemporary taste. Maybe that’s at the heart of it, but a great record endures. That’s what we have here. BTCS — the holiest of acronyms in DMB fandom — has the trappings of a classic. It’s loud, it’s venturesome and intense. It is, perhaps most dominantly, dynamic. The LP boasts brooding tones, ethereal aural colorants, clamor from the fences of the underworld — and a hell of a lot of really talented guests.
Dave Matthews Band’s ace in the hole has always been deploying world-class musicians to round out their sound. Tim Reynolds, Béla Fleck, Greg Howard, Kronos Quartet, Alanis Morrissette (a gamble that pays off beautifully on “Spoon”), John D’Earth, the “Lovely Ladies” and Butch Taylor all have intrinsic contributions to Before These Crowded Streets.
This is DMB’s only album that could be defined as “artsy,” and even that tag is too lilting a description for such a technicolored collection of tunes that offer up more variety in one LP than Dave Matthews Band laid down prior or since.
Lillywhite was dead set on introducing electric guitar and effects with this record; he wanted to take advantage of Reynolds for his brilliance with his “weird sounds.” Reynolds brings out the Fender Strat, and those weird-sound flares are most prominent on “Don’t Drink the Water,” “Crush” and “Pig,” which is only song on the album with songwriting credits attributed to all five original members.
“It was an album for the real fan,” LIllywhite said. “It wasn’t necessarily an album for someone who’d heard ‘Crash Into Me’ only, or ‘Tripping Billies.’ It was an album for the people who dug ‘Warehouse.’”
That is to say: BTCS is not easily accessible. It’s not the record you recommend to someone who wants to try the band out. It’s a prog album that isn’t proggy. It’s an alternative album that isn’t alternative. It’s a psychedelic album that isn’t swirly. It’s a heavy album that isn’t depressing. It’s DMB’s best album — yet it’s not the album that sounds like “DMB.” At 70 minutes, 14 seconds, it is Dave Matthews Band’s longest record. It is also their best.
And it is the only DMB album with Lillywhite that has his fingerprints and his alone on the record’s console. He not only produced it, but he mixed it entirely himself, which wasn’t true of UTTAD, Crash or 2012’s Away From the World.
“I think my best work is when I’m allowed to fulfill my vision,” Lillywhite said. “This was a singular vision. The other albums were not necessarily as singular as this one, for me. … From beginning to end, there was no record company interference. They would turn up and buy us dinner and go.”
With the band still hungry, Matthews tapping into some of his best work ever and Lillywhite free to guide course, BTCS turned into one of the boldest, most robust and creative albums of the 1990s. We’re talking about a record that has 25-second mini songs (album “commercials,” as Matthews pitched to Lillywhite) filled with potential to be their own tunes but instead work as a connecting thread from one song to the next.
That’s a kind of musical idea that any band with worthy chops could try, but within the context of crafting an album and knitting one song to the next? Such a simple idea is harder than it seems and very easy to swing and miss at. On Streets the commercials concept is pulled off so naturally, it’s a shock the band never tried it again.
“Dave felt very safe being Dave because he knew that I was his safety net,” Lillywhite said. “I would not let something go through that would embarrass him, so it allowed him to be extremely creative.”
Matthews, who is hit-or-miss with the pen, writes about the world, and war, and crimes across human history, and does so with more success in this session than any other album. He contrasts those broad commentaries with personal grief, both vague and distinct, alongside personal lust, personal conquest and personal spirit. His lyrical work on “Don’t Drink the Water,” “The Stone,” The Dreaming Tree” and “Spoon” holds up well 20 years later.
Matthews also sounds different here from all previous studio, and live, performances. In many ways, this is an album about the band, and Matthews, growing up. Vocally, this is Matthews’ most challenging and diverse album. “Halloween” has him at his most possessed, while some of his falsetto parts in “Spoon” are delicate to the point of being lilting.
“His singing on this album is very manly and a lot more confident than it was [before],” Lillywhite said. “He’s a man on this album. ‘Last Stop’ and ‘Halloween’ really show that style of his vocal.”
Also Lillywhite implored Matthews to sing operatically at the end of “Halloween,” which is a studio moment unparalleled to anything this band has ever done. Prior to the album’s release, the song ended with one- and two-beat staccato chomps around Carter Beauford’s tempo-rising drum solo. On the album, the inspired addition of the Kronos Quartet turns the song into something avant-garde, thanks to D’Earth’s arrangement.
“My ideas were we had to expand, we had to get bigger,” Lillywhite said. “It was a natural thing because the band were getting bigger. It seemed natural thing that we would bring in the Kronos Quartet and all those people to give some extra dimension to the music.”
“Halloween’s” inclusion is a fascinating one because it cements the album’s “dark” reputation. Considering the band has historically played the love-scorned tantrum only sporadically, it feels like a lucky circumstance that the song was even committed to an album. I get the sense that had the band not recorded this album at that exact point in its history, with Lillywhite behind the board, Halloween would have forever been placed in the live-only portion of the band’s catalog.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how audacious it was to have “Don’t Drink the Water” be the lead single off this record. DMB went from releasing “Tripping Billies” as its most recent single to shooting a music video with Matthews swinging from a jungle vine and giving a narrative, first-person history lesson about the slaughter of Native Americans.
You’re unlikely to find anything like it on American radio in 2018.
At the time, “Don’t Drink the Water” (a studio track the band labored over more than most others) stunned a lot of people who were anticipation of the group’s next album. Hell, it shook non-fans, as it was such a drastic turn from what DMB’s sound had been established as to that point. “Don’t Drink” turned many off, and I think that also had to play into this record’s critical reception. You’ll often see bands finally lauded year later for a dramatic sidestep from their previous sound — Radiohead’s Kid A, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and Weezer’s Pinkerton — but outside of a piece like this, Streets hasn’t been given that treatment.
Still, at the time this album did undeniably bring more credibility to the band for its studio work, its songwriting and its bar for achievement going forward. Look no further than “The Dreaming Tree,” which clocks in at 8:48 and is the longest song on the record. It also has a case as the best studio cut of the band’s career, competing primarily with three or four other tracks on BTCS.
“It was absolutely imperative for their legacy for them to be in a better breath than the Spin Doctors, or something like that,” Lillywhite said. “It cemented them as both a pop act and a really musically challenging act.”
That shock factor, and the fact DMB was able to build up its masterpiece primarily in the studio, bolstered the band’s career and reputation ever since. It’s also been a double-edged sword: fans have been waiting for 20 years for the group to officially release something on the level of BTCS and have essentially given up hope it will ever happen again.
Streets stands apart from every other album the group has ever made for myriad reasons. Whereas the band’s first two records have a defined but confined sound to the decade they were made, BTCS doesn’t suffer whatsoever from dated sonics.
“That’s one thing I learned from U2, actually, on The Joshua Tree,” Lillywhite said. “I was still in the throes of doing certain things, sonically, and when I came in to work on The Joshua Tree it was like, ‘No, Steve, we want this to be timeless. We don’t want anything to indicate it’s 1986 that this is being made.’”
While BTCS is many shades removed from Joshua, Lillywhite’s techniques have survived for the better all the same. Play Streets now and it still sounds healthy and modern, particularly a song like “Crush,” which somehow pulls off a smoky jazz vibe while offering up a pop-friendly love song. It’s so good you don’t even care that it takes more than two minutes to get to the first chorus, which might be the catchiest hook Matthews has ever written.
The outro on “Crush” also might be the pinnacle of DMB’s ability in the studio (LeRoi Moore’s beguiling flute plays perfectly off Reynolds’ electric guitar), and it highlights how great of a band these guys were with Lillywhite in command of the faders. To be that good in the studio while carrying an earned reputation as a dogged live act is no small feat. Though DMB has never been a true jam band, if you compare the group’s studio work from its early years against any other act with a live-music-first, improvisational reputation, DMB separated itself from most. BTCS is why.
Before These Crowded Streets came after DMB sold north of nine million copies combined of UTTAD and Crash. There was no need to change the formula, and yet, Matthews’ hand was forced. Whereas those records were made based on years of road-testing and tweaking the songs, Streets only had one tune — “Halloween,” which debuted in 1992 — that had seen previously play in its finished state.
Things coalesced in an unexpectedly serendipitous way. The band flew out to California to record at the Plant in Sausalito. They had ideas they built out piecemeal, but nothing fully fleshed. Matthews had no lyrics, and those wouldn’t be written until overdubs came at Electric Lady Studios in New York a couple months later. Meanwhile, Lillywhite was about to embark on his first project ever as a sober man.
“I remember being fearful that I wouldn’t be as enthusiastic,” he said. “But in fact, maybe it was that the band drove me and I drove the band.”
Lillywhite didn’t quite know if his previous work had been successful because of using drugs and alcohol as a concoction for creativity. It makes the conquest of the album all the more impressive; the sessions could have wound up a stressful disaster, especially given how dense a lot of the songs wound up becoming.
“Can I get the enthusiasm for my work if I don’t have a bottle of red wine and a big bag of weed next to me?” Lillywhite said. “And in fact I realized I absolutely could, and maybe I was even better without that influence.”
Lillywhite still finds it fascinating that what he calls the most psychedelic album of his career came immediately after he dropped drinking and drug use. He’s been sober for 21 years now.
From start to finish the record remains a beast, but for those seeking out the strongest streak of songs on any record in DMB’s career, the run of “The Stone,” “Crush,” “The Dreaming Tree,” “Pig” and “Spoon” is the band at its best. That five-song closing run, from a lyrical, studio production and songwriting standpoint, can match up with almost any five-song run on any record from the ’90s.
“I had a great band who were probably at the peak of their personal and musical coherence,” Lillywhite said. ”Things started to get a little more ugly after this album.”
Among DMB’s most ardent fans — and even perhaps especially the ones who no longer go to shows or follow the group on a weekly or monthly basis — Streets is the peak of DMB’s career. It signifies the coalescence of Lillywhite’s studio mastery, the band at is most ambitious, Matthews’ lyrical work at its most imaginative and visual. (The record has a cousin in the mythified, abandoned Lillywhite Sessions, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
They stunned with this album. Its deliberate departure, angry elements and protracted studio cuts (excluding the upbeat brief intro track “Pantala Naga Pampa,” the average song on this album is seven minutes long) were a stark departure from “Ants Marching,” “What Would You Say” and “So Much to Say.” Those being the singles that shot DMB to fame from 1994 through 1997.
But Streets is what lifted the band from popular to phenomenon. Twenty years later it’s proving to be a critical archive to Hall of Fame-worthy career, an album that cemented the band’s run of touring and success for the next decade-plus. Its staying power kept a generation of fans around who were eventually let down by albums like Everyday and Stand Up. Without BTCS, you can make an easy argument that DMB’s career careens in a different direction, probably not for the better.
DMB will be remembered as as live act first and foremost, but Before These Crowded Streets has long established itself as the band at its best. They had something back then that they’ll never get back to, like the balloon that rise and then vanish.