Culture > Music

Music: Hitting rock bottom

Music | Even quality rock music falls far short morally

Issue: "Life is not a party," Oct. 3, 1998

As Chris Stamper suggests, rock music is hitting rock bottom. Lyrics often reflect the nihilism and hopelessness of the late- 20th-century mind. Even when a refreshing sound comes along-like the Dave Matthews Band-it remains mired in contentless mantras. Appearing on the cover of Spin as "the King of Rock" at age 31, Dave Matthews has achieved stardom without continuous professional management or a hit single. His sixth and latest album, Before These Crowded Streets, displays some of Mr. Matthews's most expressive vocal/instrumental passions to date. The album's smorgasbord of acoustic violin, guitar, saxophone, and mystic melodies from other cultures is better than its recurring 1990s themes of lust and eco-consciousness. The lyrics in "Rapunzel" are old: "Hip lock up so tight/ You drive me crazy/ Crazy is all right/ With you looking at me/ You make me feel high/ Every single thing you do to me/ Is like I'm drunk/ I do my best for you I do." Then there's this jeremiad against settlers in the American West in "Don't Drink the Water": "Fool you're blind, move aside for me/ All I can say to you my new neighbor/ Is you must move on or I will bury you." Those are subtle lines compared to some of his others: "I can sleep more soundly/ Upon these poor souls/ I'll build heaven and call it home/ 'Cause you're all dead now." Dave Matthews plays guitar passably, but clearly could not succeed without the instrumental support of Leroi Moore (violin), Boyd Tinsley (sax) and Carter Beauford (drums). On this release, Matthews also enlists the Kronos Quartet, banjoist Bela Fleck, and vocalist Alanis Morissette. In her duet with Mr. Matthews, "Spoon," the stream-of-consciousness lyrics deal with the pain of a difficult relationship. Other groups are mimicking the groundbreaking Matthews ensemble sound but fall short of its fusion of jazz, African pop, funk rock, and European folk styles. Matthews's voice overlays the band's sound with expressive lyricism unique for its stunning range and edgy color. Though the music's precision and compelling technical polish make it difficult to resist, parents and discerning teenagers should resist it, for words have consequences, no matter how compelling the music may be. Stunning virtuosity and fresh sounds by themselves cannot transcend the confused musical morass of modern rock.

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