Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. This time, we’re talking about the newly remastered reissue of Dave Matthews Band’s 1994 breakthrough, Under The Table And Dreaming.
Marah Eakin: Like so many people, presumably, I have a complicated relationship with Dave Matthews Band’s Under The Table And Dreaming. I was 13 when it came out in 1994, and while my tastes at the time leaned more toward Green Day’s Bay Area punk than DMB’s jazzy jams, I was also at least somewhat interested in being accepted by my white, upper-middle-class suburban peers, and thus I became fluent in “Dave.” Somehow, I managed to convince myself that “Satellite” was romantic, that “Ants Marching” was a perfectly acceptable dance track, and that “What Would You Say” was profound. I owned a well-used CD copy of Under The Table And Dreaming, which I would listen to between spins of the latest Bush or Oasis LP. And when I was 15 or 16, I saw DMB live at an amphitheater with some friends, though to say I was actually with them would be a lie, because they ditched me to go smoke weed, and I was apparently too square to hang.
It should go without saying that I have since grown out of my Dave-phase. In fact, I’m still not sure how I ever tricked myself into liking these corncobs. But listening to the newly remastered 20th anniversary edition of Under The Table And Dreaming, at least I can get a sense of what I maybe liked about the band—besides the fact that other people liked them. “What Would You Say” and “Ants Marching” still hold some hamfisted charm, though some of that is surely nostalgia based, and the spare guitar at the beginning of “Satellite” is objectively nice. And, as the album’s acoustic bonus tracks—“Dancing Nancies” and “The Song That Jane Likes”—prove, Matthews isn’t entirely a terrible songwriter. He does have a way with words, even if those words might be hard to both hear and understand once smothered with instrumentation.
Matthews’ actual lyrics haven’t aged well, though—and I’m still not sure that I have any idea what most of the songs on Under The Table And Dreaming are about, other than being “a monkey on a string.” And all that jazzy saxophone? I know I shouldn’t speak ill of the late LeRoi Moore, but, man. That shit is hard to take.
I don’t want to shit on Under The Table And Dreaming, because I don’t actually hate it, but I definitely wouldn’t go to the mattresses for Carter Beauford’s improv-infused drumming or even just Matthews in general. I’m not sure I ever really “got” DMB, and age and time haven’t changed that.
Erik, I know you have a similar history with “Dave.” What was it like for you to listen to Under The Table And Dreaming 20 years after it was first released?
Erik Adams: I can hear that particular, knowing pronunciation of “Dave” in my head, and it fills me with mortified dread. My full-on jam-band phase was brief—Billy Breathes was as far as I was willing to go with Phish—but Dave Matthews Band was one of my favorite musical acts all through high school. I have no shame in admitting that I was a show-attending, The Lillywhite Sessions-seeking, poster-on-the-bedroom-wall DMB fan. But listening to Under The Table And Dreaming for the first time in 11 years, I’m feeling a lot like Marah: Why did I ever like this?
Here’s how I reason with it. In the southeast Michigan of the 1990s, as with Marah’s Cleveland home turf, Dave Matthews Band had a cultural currency. It was the music that connected everyone who formed my nascent view of what “cool” was: older cousins, the high-school drumline, the youth pastor who later officiated my wedding. Under The Table And Dreaming was a cheap ticket into camaraderie and conversation with these people, an accessible album of cheery tunes and cryptic lyrics that was a gateway into deeper DMB fandom and further peer acceptance. You might think you know “Jimi Thing” after hearing Under The Table And Dreaming, but you don’t really hear what Matthews and company are going for unless you know the 14-minute version from Live In Chicago 12.19.1998.
And that brings me to the other component of my lapsed DMB fandom: There’s a “complexity” to the music of Under The Table And Dreaming that’s best understood by the young, the naïve, and the stoned. Beauford and bassist Stefan Lessard are a talented rhythm section laying an intricate musical foundation in Gordian time signatures, but that virtuosity is wasted on Matthews’ rudimentary strumming and Boyd Tinsely’s snoozy fiddling. (Every conversation about a band’s irrelevant members should begin with the violin player.) Matthews is a run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter, but my adult ears would much rather hear the acoustic tracks at the end of Under The Table And Dreaming, free as they are from the noodling that isn’t as impressive as it used to be. Because of the allure of that purported complexity, I was always a bigger fan of looser, more experimental DMB albums like Before These Crowded Streets and Crash. And while I’m now skeptical of the reasons I loved Under The Table And Dreaming, I highly recommend the experience that helped me give up the fandom: Getting dumped by a Dave Matthews superfan will change your life, kids.
Annie, are there any DMB demons you’d like to exorcise? And to move the conversation outside of ourselves: What was happening in the fall of 1994 that allowed this hippie-dippy, college-town quintet to seize the national spotlight?
Annie Zaleski: I actually grew up a few towns over from Marah (shout out to the Southwest Conference!) and graduated from high school a year before her, and so I know exactly what you guys mean about the band and cultural currency. DMB was the group everybody in my suburban-hippie-filled high school loved—it was this communal thing to like “Dave.” So my confession is that I wasn’t a fan of the band back in the day, beyond “What Would You Say,” “Ants Marching” and the singles from Crash. I was a contrary kid who didn’t want to like what everyone else liked; I was buying, like, Sebadoh cassettes and The Magnetic Fields records to try to be different. Plus, only the popular kids and band geeks were into DMB, and I definitely only qualified as the latter. Matthews—and, by extension, his music—was almost everything I loathed back then.
As I got older, however, my view of the band softened considerably; I didn’t actively dislike it, I just ignored it. So when I listened to Under The Table And Dreaming for this piece, it was for the very first time. Even with fresh ears, I can’t disagree with anything you guys have said already. The music sounds horribly dated and almost like twee light rock—mainly because of, sigh, the saxophone—and Matthews’ weird, voice-cracking over-emoting is really grating over the course of the album. Marah, you’re right—I have no idea what any of the songs mean, which isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. But the mysteries contained in the lyrics seem more like gibberish than anything (“My head won’t leave my head alone”) or are cringe-inducing (“Kiss me won’t you kiss me now / And sleep I would inside your mouth”—ew). The end of the album is where things get interesting, mainly because the music chills out and isn’t crammed with sounds; the instrumental “#34” and the campfire barnstorm “Granny,” a bonus track on this reissue, have space to breathe, which lets them actually have nuance.
I think the album resonated because in fall 1994, people had grown tired of the depressing pall hovering over music and wanted something different. Even before Kurt Cobain’s suicide earlier that year, grunge’s angst was starting to wear thin. At the time, it wasn’t exactly clear what was next, something borne out by the diversity of alternative music trends that year: post-grunge, power-pop, electro-industrial, theatrical jazz, Britpop, girl-grunge, and punk, to name a few. However, it was obvious that folk-leaning rock music was coming back into fashion to balance out the heaviness—Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, and Live were riding high on the alternative charts—and events such as Woodstock ’94 cultivated nostalgia for music’s simpler, feel-good times. People wanted to turn to music that made them feel good—and for all its flaws, Under The Table And Dreaming was certainly uplifting. (Even though, horribly, the album was released mere months after Matthews’ sister was murdered; Under The Table And Dreaming is dedicated to her.)
Plus, DMB’s music sounded really well adjusted; unlike other bands’ tunes, it didn’t have daddy issues or serious mental angst. For teenagers with the usual pedestrian school/parents/friends concerns, this was a record they could relate to, as it wasn’t terribly deep and the “romantic” poetry wasn’t sophisticated at all. Especially after the emotional anguish of the early ’90s—something which could be hard to relate to on anything but a surface level—a record for those preoccupied with getting high, hanging out, and having fun was a hedonistic breath of fresh air. Listeners could be “Dave” after going off to college—he was just an ordinary dude.
So, Chris, are we being too harsh on the record since we’re all now old and jaded? And was there more to Under The Table And Dreaming’s success than it being a feel-good album? What do you say?
Chris Mincher: I’ve often found that paying a long-overdue visit to my teenage favorites sparks a whole new appreciation for them, but diving back into this one was a fairly restless and unsatisfying experience. For one, it is extremely difficult to evaluate this record without the taint of what followed in its 20-year aftermath—college dorms plagued with persistent infections of tedious jam bands such as O.A.R.; nauseatingly smooth adult contemporary goobers from Jason Mraz to John Mayer; and, as everyone here as aptly referenced, fan-boys who casually name-dropped “Dave” as if he was a co-worker at Blockbuster with a sweet crash pad and a solid weed hook-up. Stripping all that away to relive my affection for Under The Table And Dreaming at 14 is a tall order, but, as I was never too concerned with being on board with musical trends, the only conclusion I can reach is that the record must have had genuine merit.
One problem is that trying to find enduring good qualities about the album involves sifting through a lot of material that I now associate with unbearably bland soft-rock. For example, I had recalled “Satellite” as an inoffensive and capable mood-setter, but now I just hear the sort of empty, soothing filler used to pacify nerves in a hospital waiting room. And I simply don’t know how I or any other high school student in history would tolerate, much less own, any record containing the type of gentle jazz that meanders for nearly six minutes on “Lover Lay Down.”
But I did carry around a well-worn copy of Under The Table And Dreaming, and listened to it, a lot. Having my adolescence ushered in with an avalanche of caustic, disaffected grunge had occupied most of the early ’90s for me, so, Annie, I think you’re on to something when you hypothesize that Dave Matthews provided a way to come out from under all that cynicism and get a breath of fresh air. But I don’t think that means there isn’t also something worthwhile here that transcends its cultural impact.
First, for all that the album occasionally wanders through drowsy passages and listless breakdowns, many other songs ride an uplifting, leanly crafted momentum that’s never burdened by the whirlwind of instruments and chants the band deftly deploys—some senseless lyrics aside (and doing one’s best to mind-wipe any later-developing biases), I think “The Best Of What’s Around,” “What Would You Say,” “Ants Marching,” and “Jimi Thing” do hold up. It’s not easy to cram in as much as Under The Table And Dreaming does and maintain such a light, airy feel throughout, yet Matthews finds and preserves that balance with little trouble. He’s also got the ability to throw down a catchy hook now and then, which never hurts.
If I can’t exactly remember what got me on board with this record, my best guess is a combination of what you all have pointed out. Annie, I wouldn’t be surprised if Under The Table And Dreaming was a welcome change of pace from the musical contempt stockpiled in my CD and tape collection. In many ways, I was also drawn to the complexity that Erik discusses—after years of three-member bands blasting guitar feedback at me, here was a group that toned down the noise and filled the gap with an honest-to-God rhythm section.
So, in short, I do think there were legitimate reasons for liking Under The Table And Dreaming beyond its cheery demeanor and potential social benefits. However, I also agree with you, Marah, that when this sucker is bad, it’s torture. Curious: Is there any modern equivalent you can think of—an act that’s big now but some kid will be shaking his or head in bewilderment at in 2034?
Marah Eakin: Ooh, good question, Chris. You’ve got your One Directions and 5 Seconds Of Summers, of course, but that would be like saying the New Kids On The Block don’t hold up. I’m pretty tempted to say someone like Ryan Cabrera or Jason Mraz, but even they’re pretty passé now. Maybe what I should go with is something that’s just so now that it’ll age like all the hacking talk in ’90s movies. Big truck country? EDM? Maroon 5?
That being said, I don’t know if I can make that call. I asked my husband to help me out with this answer and he made a good point: Did DMB feel so 1994 in 1994, or was it the sound of sunflower babydoll dresses and the H.O.R.D.E. festival—stuff that seemed totally modern at the time? Or did Under The Table And Dreaming just not age well because, well, it was dated to begin with? It is full of soft jazz riffs and rambling patter, and neither of those could ever really scream “youth of today,” no matter when it was released.
Erik, what are your thoughts? And what happened to your original copy of this record? Please don’t say you still have it.
Erik Adams: I’ve moved across the country twice in the past seven years, and each move was preceded by a mass culling of my CD collection. Under The Table And Dreaming went away during one of those purges, but I can’t remember which—no matter how long it stuck around, it stuck around for too long. I can say with certainty that Waterloo Records bought my copy of Crash in 2011, which is an unfortunate sign that America’s youth is still seeking the proper tuneage for its next hacky-sack sesh.
When it comes to the act that will be to our 2034 equivalents what Dave is to us (assuming music criticism isn’t just a Spotify algorithm at that point), I think Marah is correct to single out the EDM scene. To find an Under The Table And Dreaming-level phenomenon, one need only follow the festival crowds and recreational drug use to the big-tent electronic producers who’ve made Electric Daisy Carnival the H.O.R.D.E. of its day. Jam and EDM both paint in broad emotional strokes, and the spectacle of a live show from either quadrant appeals equally to the casual listener and the hopelessly devoted fanatic hanging on every solo/drop.
Am I reading too much into these parallels, Annie? And is there anything short of a professional obligation that could get you to listen to Under The Table And Dreaming one more time?
Annie Zaleski: Erik, I don’t think you are reaching—but I’d actually argue that there are a slew of Warped Tour scene idols that will cause more cringing in the future. Like Matthews, these musicians are the figureheads of their respective bands, the ones which draw the most worship and obsession from fans—not only for their music, but for their looks, or for silly drama such as spats with other bands (or bandmates). Objectively, a lot of these bands are completely terrible and playing, like, fourth-wave screamo and metalcore—stuff that sounded lame years ago, and sounds even more tired today. They’re bands tailor-made to be a fleeting trend, or a gateway group to better music. Heck, it won’t even take 20 years for them to be embarrassing; fickle fans mean that plenty of these acts are wildly popular for a year or two, and then become permanent residents of the third slot on a five-band bill.
While I wouldn’t turn off Under The Table And Dreaming if I heard it playing somewhere, I probably wouldn’t listen to the record again sans professional obligation. Sentimental “Dave” doesn’t resonate with me. I would rather listen to later-era DMB, that has far more complexity and darkness; in fact, I really dug Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King, much to my surprise.
So, Chris, any final thoughts to add to this discussion, or any points we missed making about Matthews or the album?
Chris Mincher: Erik and Annie, your comments on Dave Matthews’ later stuff got me searching for the aspects of Under The Table And Dreaming that portended decades of continued relevance and unending touring success. In truth, though the album has plenty of perfectly pleasant parts, nothing jumps out—but perhaps that’s exactly why the band has been so durable. Big, bold, innovative breakthroughs sometimes put musicians on a trajectory for lifetime fame; more often than not, however, they only spark people’s fading attention for a couple of progressively inconsequential follow-ups.
This record wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking effort, but its multicultural, eclectic alt-trad rock made for a relatively big tent that all kinds of people could get under: You don’t have to be a diehard to moderately appreciate a song or two off a DMB album, or find one of his shows to be at least a passingly acceptable diversion. Even if Matthews has never appealed to you on any level, it just feels a little silly to hate on something so harmless. Twenty years later, Under The Table And Dreaming remains reasonably agreeable, but, more importantly, demonstrates just how far a little inclusion can take you.