Happy 20th Anniversary to Dave Matthews Band’s Crash, originally released April 30, 1996.
While I’m known by my friends and family as someone who can be rather self-righteous and stubborn at times, I also have no qualms about admitting when I’m wrong about something. As I examined a few months ago while celebrating Tori Amos’ magnificent third album Boys for Pele, my relationship with music throughout my teenage years was regrettably plagued by rigidity and myopia. I shut myself off to anything that didn’t fit within the narrowly defined boundaries of my beloved hip-hop and soul music, which unbeknownst to me at the time, severely compromised my musical education during one of my most formative periods.
As with Tori, Dave Matthews Band was an act that I initially dismissed outright, despite the fact that my closest friends were devoted fans. Time and time again, they encouraged me to give DMB a chance, adamant that I would discover the band’s many charms if I simply listened to their songs—namely those that comprise their first two albums, Remember Two Things (1993) and Under the Table and Dreaming (1994)—objectively. And time and time again, I declined their invitation, naively convinced that DMB represented little more than frat boy, jam band rock of the most insipid caliber.
Thankfully, my self-imposed bubble of musical snobbery popped upon arriving at UCLA as a bright-eyed freshman in the fall of 1995. College, and more specifically the enhanced exposure to a vast array of different people and ideas it granted to me, proved to be an awakening. I became much more self-aware and welcoming of experiences and perspectives that challenged or recontextualized my own, which enabled me—at long last—to finally approach bands like DMB with an open mind and open ears. In other words, I became less uptight. Crash, the group’s third album and second major label effort for RCA released on the last day of April in 1996, was my formal initiation into the brilliance of DMB’s music and confirmation that I had, in fact, been wrong about them all along. So very, very wrong.
The story of Dave Matthews Band began five years before Crash arrived, when in 1991, Dave Matthews (vocals, songwriting, guitar), Carter Beauford (drums), and the late LeRoi Moore (saxophone) began recording songs and playing gigs together around their shared stomping grounds of Charlottesville, Virginia. Soon thereafter, the trio expanded to a sextet with the additions of Stefan Lessard (bass), Boyd Tinsely (violin), and Peter Griesar (keyboards), who subsequently left the band in 1993. Matthews’ friend and multi-instrumentalist Tim Reynolds also became an honorary member of the ensemble and has remained a vital contributor for the past few decades, frequently performing with Matthews as an acoustic duo.
Though DMB have recorded nine studio albums to date, they have always fundamentally been a live band at their core, dating back to their early days playing across the local Charlottesville club scene and University of Virginia fraternity circuit. Their studio identity is purely secondary, seemingly a conduit for them to expand & evolve their unique fusion of rock, jazz, soul, funk, and folk live, in front of their eternally loyal followers. Nevertheless, their prolific recorded repertoire compliments their live pedigree and encapsulates their expert musicianship, polished arrangements, and Matthews’ eloquent, emotive vocals.
Released through the band’s own Bama Rags label in November 1993, their debut album Remember Two Things is certainly not your traditional studio affair, as all but two of the ten tracks are live recordings of their early compositions. Included among these are “Ants Marching,” “Satellite,” and “Tripping Billies,” which subsequently appeared in proper studio form on their next two full-length albums. Just six months after the arrival of Remember Two Things, DMB delivered Recently, a 5-track EP of live recordings, including their cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which has since become a staple of the band’s live shows.
The band’s whirlwind, hyper-productive 10 months following Remember Two Things culminated with the release of their breakthrough major label debut studio album Under the Table and Dreaming in September 1994. Five singles were released from the album, including “What Would You Say,” “Ants Marching,” and “Satellite.” Fueled by the production prowess of Steve Lillywhite (Peter Gabriel, Morrissey, U2) and the promotional backing of RCA Records, Under The Table and Dreaming was an unequivocal commercial and critical success, which Rolling Stone hailed as “one of the most ambitious releases of '94.”
In the aftermath of Under the Table and Dreaming’s widespread acclaim, the group felt intensifying pressure to deliver a solid successor. Nonetheless, they rolled with the punches and refused to allow outsiders’ expectations to govern the recording process for the follow-up. "If anything, we didn't want to let the success of the last album affect this album,” Matthews admitted in a 1996 interview. “We wanted to get away from imitating and repeating ourselves. We tried to do something that would stand on its own and have fun making it."
Like its precursor, Crash features a handful of uptempo stompers juxtaposed with more subdued, plaintive fare. But Crash is arguably a more confident, sophisticated, and thematically varied song suite than Under the Table and Dreaming. Lead single “Too Much” is a funky ode—or more accurately, a veiled lament—to reckless gluttony and self-indulgence in their various forms. Depending on one’s disposition, the song can also be interpreted as a biting condemnation of American consumerism and material preoccupation.
The rollicking, Grammy Award-winning album opener and second single “So Much to Say” is an ironic take on people not having particularly meaningful things to say at all, opting instead to speak in superficialities and generalities. With lines such as “I say my hell is the closet I'm stuck inside / Can't see the light,” repeated twice in the first verse, some listeners have also interpreted “So Much to Say” as a nod to the repressive nature of reconciling and revealing one’s homosexual identity.
An uplifting, carpe diem imbued paean to drug-induced hedonism (or hippiedom, as it were), the invigorating “Tripping Billies” encourages us to seize the moment and live life to the fullest (“Eat, drink, and be merry / For tomorrow, we'll die”). “Two Step” gradually gathers steam with an extended, guitar-driven intro that crescendos into a propulsively rich love song about eternal devotion and finding fulfillment in the connection with another.
All of these uptempo tracks are wonderful and among DMB’s strongest recordings of their career to date. But for me, it’s the softer, more sonically temperate songs that comprise the album’s standout moments. The melodic, acoustic guitar driven ballad “Crash Into Me” celebrates the permanence of boyhood lust and sexual innocence within the context of an adult relationship. Indeed, when Matthews offers up the chorus refrain “Oh, when you come / Crash into me / And I come into you / And I come into you / In a boy's dream, in a boy's dream” and later, “Hike up your skirt a little more / And show the world to me,” he intentionally leaves little need for interpretation, but plenty of room for imaginations to run wild.
Other highlights include the hushed, introspective mea culpa “Let You Down” and the Steve Biko indebted, anti-apartheid anthem “Cry Freedom,” a poignant song drawn from Matthews’ observations and ruminations during his adolescence in his native South Africa. The 41st song the band wrote, the saxophone-fueled (and not-so-originally titled) “#41” explores the greed and jealousy that accompanies fame. “Suddenly there’s all this money and people pulling, asking, ‘Where’s mine?’ Matthews explained to Rolling Stone. “The wild dogs come out. The innocence of just wanting to make music was kinda overshadowed by the dark things that come along with money and success.” Though Matthews refused to name him here, the song was inspired by the financial and legal conflicts the band encountered with their former manager Russ Hoffman. Despite its unfortunate context, “#41” is evidence enough of DMB’s uncanny ability to craft something beautiful from less-than-beautiful circumstances.
For what sales figures are worth, Crash remains Dave Matthews Band’s best-selling album of their career, having shifted seven million copies here in the States alone. Though they’ve continued to release stellar album after stellar album during the two decades that have followed, at least for my money, Crash is still their greatest studio achievement. "We certainly didn't set off to be a huge pop band, and it's nothing any of us could have anticipated,” a humbled Matthews confided to Guitar World around the time that Crash surfaced. “We all just knew that this band was unlike anything any of us had ever played in. We all really believed in it and just decided to take it as far as we could. The sound of the band is just an organic result of what all of us bring to the table. We have a lot of different experiences and influences and it all goes into the mix." And what a magical mix it is.