A southern jam-rock group with a cult following that sells out stadiums, the Dave Matthews Band has always been full of contradictions. Even when the Birkenstocked faithful were hearing the word via bootleg instead of Billboard, the group always rooted its instrumental excursions in rock instead of in the Frank Zappa-style weirdness of Phish or the bluegrass traditionalism of the Grateful Dead. And by 1998, it had a No. 1 album (Before These Crowded Streets), a bona fide rock star in the self-effacing Matthews, and hard-won status as an enduring band at a time when sugary teen pop and Spice Girls seemed to be pushing guitar rock into the margins. Not bad for a bunch of regular guys from Charlottesville -- even if the critics never quite got what the college kids understand.
Still, like many of the latter-day hippie bands adherents swear "you just have to see live," the Dave Matthews Band never fully captured its airy spontaneity -- those several-minute jams with soaring sax -- on its studio albums. So on Everyday (RCA), it's stopped trying, opting to focus on tighter pop songs, Matthews's electric-guitar-playing, and a studio sheen from producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morrisette, No Doubt, nineties Aerosmith), who co-wrote the songs with Matthews.
If nothing else, it's a gutsy move. Everyday is still plenty eclectic -- "I'm mixing up a bunch of magic stuff," Matthews sings at the beginning of the first song. But the mixing of the album itself -- perhaps because of Ballard's commercial instincts -- casts Matthews way out in front, where he sounds like a singer-songwriter who doesn't have all that much to say (big questions: "Why do I beg like a child for your candy?" "Why can't I dream you away from me?"). And though the smarter songs (the more personal "If I Had It All," the easygoing "Fool to Think") benefit from the concision, the group's newfound musical sharpness isn't that of a world-class bar band but that of an outsize stadium act -- all grand gesture and larger-than-life lyrics. Sometimes, as on "I Did It," the band recaptures the spirit of seventies rock in all its innocent fun. Other times, especially on the cloying, overdramatic "The Space Between," it recaptures only those moments that involve holding a lighter high above one's head.