Contrary to his image, music, and apparent fan base, Dave Matthews is not a chugalug mirth-meister. Proving that point appears to be the agenda behind Before These Crowded Streets, which finds the leader of the jam-band nation ranting against war, bloodshed, the death of the good old days, and various unspecified enemies. The band, meanwhile, has never sounded so Technicolored. With its bright, fluttery flutes, sawing violins (some courtesy of the Kronos Quartet), R&B-flavored backup singers, and bold, arena-ready production, the album is intended to display DMB's sonic maturity as well. Matthews and company are absolutely beside themselves in their goal to create a major artistic statement.
Some of this ambition suits the group; if they're aiming for a new style of unplugged prog-rock, they've found it. But they have yet to learn the difference between virtuosity and bombast. Their snaky tempo changes will make many of these songs ideal for quick-cutting videos, yet the band still tends to overarrange its material. And when Matthews growls petulantly over darker-flavored tracks as in ''Halloween'' and the apocalyptic Eastern-flavored ''The Last Stop'' he comes off as a post-alternative version of later-period Neil Diamond. Matthews sounds more at home singing about dancing in the rain with his partner or loping through the fields-of-gold prettiness of ''The Stone'' or ''Spoon'' (the latter featuring a counterpart harmony by Alanis Morissette). On his next album, perhaps Matthews should gripe about the pressure musicians feel to assert their credibility. B-