Review of Some DevilBy Waldo Jaquith
Dave Matthews' first solo release, Some Devil, is an album that was anticipated heavily by fans, perhaps more so than a Dave Matthews Band album, because the prospect of a solo album proved so troubling to ardent followers of DMB. How could Matthews create in the absence of his musical compatriots? What if he couldn't manage, and the album was terrible? Worse yet, what if he did a bang-up job — would that mean that the rest of the band was disposable? Though the question of the album's impact on Dave Matthews Band's future will have to remain up in the air for the time being, at least one concern can be now set aside: it turns out Some Devil is quite a remarkable work.
Casual listeners of Dave Matthews Band are unlikely to notice any great departure, but ardent fans may be alarmed by Matthews' new musical directions. (Hint: The fact that you're reading this puts you in the latter category.) Much of the album takes a page from Dave Matthews Band's most recent album, Busted Stuff, adopting the relaxed, intricate tone of that album's often-overlooked "You Never Know." Eschewing solos and moving vocals to the forefront, many of Some Devil's songs are reminiscent of James Taylor in their emphasis on lyrics, their tone of sweetness and the light touch used in production. Nearly all of the tracks lack the unbridled enthusiasm on which Dave Matthews has often relied in the past, though with a couple of notable exceptions. Which isn't to say that the album is monotonous — on the contrary, within these confines Matthews has managed to describe a tremendous range of emotions. From the loping "An' Another Thing" to the calm simplicity of "Oh" to the vocal ecstasies of the final minute of "Save Me," it would be difficult to describe Some Devil as a musical monoculture.
Given Matthews' selection of performers, it's clear that producer Stephen Harris must have had his work cut out for him to reign them in. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a group that must rarely be described without using the word "energetic", turn in a surprisingly low-key (and right on target) performance on "Dodo," the album's opening track. Phish's Trey Anastasio plays guitar on five tracks, and while he does so with great technical talent, there's nothing flashy about it. Harris even manages to make 41-piece orchestra Seattlemusic Group sound low-key. The Total Experience Gospel Choir, however, is let loose on "Save Me," to great effect. Bassist Tony Hall and drummer Brady Blade both provide solid rhythm contributions, though the nature of the songs is such that neither are given many opportunity to demonstrate their talents. Blade provides particularly notable percussion work on "Trouble" and "Stay or Leave," with a performance on "Oh" that is praise-worthy for its simplicity. As always, it's difficult to pick out what guitar work is done by Tim Reynolds, in large part because he tends to create sounds with a guitar that one would not normally attribute to that instrument. If just a portion of Some Devil's more interesting, hard-to-identify instrumentation can be chalked up to Reynolds, though, he's done well here, indeed.