Matthews free-associates a dream of his daughter sitting on the roof as the water of Katrina rises: Daddy, she asks, when you gonna put me in a song? She’s already a specter of herself; his other daughter’s just gone. He didn’t want this to be a funeral march, but there it is.
In real life, Matthews’ daughters thrive and the storm-smashed South keeps working toward recovery. But the Dave Matthews Band did endure a catastrophe while making its sprawling, nervy new album, “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.” Saxophonist and founding member LeRoi Moore was killed in an accident on his Virginia farm during a break between recording sessions. Though the album title incorporates his nickname and its cover, drawn by Matthews, pictures him transformed into a Mardi Gras float, this isn’t simply a long eulogy. It’s more a renewal of band vows, made more intense by the loss of a key player.
Producer Rob Cavallo, known for sharpening the teeth of Green Day and Avril Lavigne, among others, encouraged Matthews and his colleagues to turn up the juice and make some sharp turns. The shambolic groove that’s long been the band’s trademark remains, but it’s toughened up by foregrounded electric guitars. Songs like “Shake Me Like a Monkey” and “Squirm” howl and snap, with drummer Carter Beauford pushing his mates to resist lying back and taking it easy.
The drive to be more precise and aggressive reveals the prog-rock side of the DMB; Peter Gabriel seems like one clear influence, and so does “The Dream of the Blue Turtles”-era Sting, especially on the darkly whimsical “Funny the Way It Is.”
Matthews is (as always) a quirky presence, reaching for profundities in one second and for the tie of a girl’s halter top the next. But something, either his friend’s passing or Cavallo’s commercially-minded influence, helps him focus.
Matthews is still writing lyrics that will make undergrads nod their heads in quiet wonder; but at album’s end, he also offers “You and Me,” a modestly sweet love song to his wife in which he exchanges that trademark quirkiness for an unfussy adult voice. It’s just one little song on a big record, probably doomed to be overlooked by many. The happiness in domesticity it expresses marks one path to survival — after the storm, after all, there are still the dishes to do.