Given the slew of live albums that clutter its discography, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the Dave Matthews Band hasn't cut all that many studio albums. Just five in ten years, in fact (2003's Some Devil was a solo side project by Matthews), and two of those were made in the aftermath of the unreleased 2000 Steve Lillywhite sessions -- a set of heavily bootlegged recordings that most serious DMB fans consider among the group's strongest work. The brouhaha surrounding the Lillywhite recordings and, particularly, their polished, mannered Glen Ballard-produced 2001 substitute, Everyday, may not have affected the group's sales, but it sure wreaked havoc on the psyches of the band and its fans, who questioned the band's direction after Everyday. But all of that turmoil disguised a problem that the group faced: they still could captivate fans in concert, but as a recording unit, the Dave Matthews Band was having some serious problems figuring out where to go next. They pulled it together on Busted Stuff -- a de facto do over for the Lillywhite sessions that also functioned as a tidy apology for the Ballard debacle -- but that album was essentially a holding pattern, since the songs were older than those on Everyday, which makes 2005's Stand Up the first album of new material since that 2001 album, and it finds the band right back where it was after Before These Crowded Streets: the guys don't know what the hell to do next.
Five years ago, Matthews initially responded to that puzzle with a set of soul-searching songs, but he abandoned them in favor of a collaboration with Ballard, a producer so meticulous, each of his projects is given a similar sheen that's mainstream but not quite pop. Having tried that approach, DMB decided to team up with a very different producer this time around -- Mark Batson, who made his bones with modern R&B and hip-hop records by the likes of India Arie, Joe, Beyoncé, and Seal. This doesn't result in an extreme makeover -- which, quite frankly, would have been more interesting -- but instead a gentle gloss on the band's sound that renders it sleek, muted, and rather lifeless. Batson produces the DMB as he would any other record: he keeps the mixes relatively spare and open, cutting up the rhythms in the computer, polishing it all so it glistens. It may not be as robotic as Ballard's approach -- it's much warmer actually, even if all the emphasis is on the surface -- but it still doesn't play to the group's strengths as a band as a performing unit. Too many of the cuts appear pieced together in the studio, never once capturing the energy of a band playing live. And when the group does lay into a groove, as it does on the title track or "Old Dirt Hill" (never has a song struggled so hard to sound breezy), the music sounds stiff and stilted, a faltering attempt to replicate what came so easily to the band a decade ago. But the fault should not be placed at Batson's feet, as he pulls out all of his tricks to save a set of moribund music. Matthews pulls away from any of the progress he made as a writer on both Busted Stuff and Some Devil. His ballads regain their sense of static, turgid monotony and he often resorts to the smirky humor that plagued his earliest work. To top it all off, Matthews sounds ragged, his voice breathy and torn to shreds. It's immediately distracting on the opener, "Dreamgirl" -- which romanticizes a "good, good drunk" -- and that scratchiness never goes away, providing an appropriately worn, tattered center for an album that is directionless, ham-fisted, consciously classy, and ultimately bland, the kind of record that could make longtime fans doubt about sticking around from this point on. Not only does Stand Up fail to solve the central question of where does the Dave Matthews Band go next, it suggests that even though they are aware of the problem, they haven't really pondered what to do about it, or what it means for them in the long term.