Among Dave Matthews' charms, quality has never been chief. He traffics in standard-issue folk-pop that occasionally gets confused with something greater -- mainly because Matthews, like Sting, has learned that by adding the vaguest suggestion of world music or jazz, he can receive full credit for their influence. His singing style substitutes clenched teeth for emotion, and his vocals often sound as if they were recorded live from the seat of a toilet. That Matthews has become the most successful product of college-rock's early-'90s granola underground testifies mostly to his savvy: He knows that workmanlike pop trumps workmanlike improv any day, and his records have reflected a growing concern with the former.
Advance notice has inevitably proclaimed Everyday to be Matthews' Great Leap Forward -- the most commonly cited evidence being his frequent use of a real live electric guitar. (A close second: Matthews electing to bring his band into the 1980s by asking violinist Boyd Tinsley to rap on "I Did It.") Such paradigm shifts notwithstanding, the album does boast one rather startling departure: its producer. After three albums under the tutelage of collegiate stalwart Steve Lillywhite, Matthews signed on with Glen Ballard -- the industry's reigning éminence grise and the man responsible for co-writing, among other things, Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" and pretty much everything ever recorded by Alanis Morissette. And Ballard co-wrote all 12 songs here.
To the band's faithful, this probably constitutes something approaching treason; to the band's label, it probably constitutes something approaching a direct order. And to the disinterested listener, it constitutes practically nothing -- for all its bluster, Everyday simply plays like another Dave Matthews album. A little tighter, perhaps, a little glossier. Otherwise, it's all here: the spastic approximations of groove ("Dreams of Our Fathers," "I Did It"), the inescapable future hits ("The Space Between"), and the ballads with titles like "Angel," lines like "Mother father please explain to me/How this world has come to be," and references to things like snow-capped mountains. It's exactly what you'd expect: a middling album of diluted styles and unaffecting sentiments. In that sense, the album does display a certain sort of brilliance from Ballard -- it's amazing how thoroughly invisible he makes himself. Here's a guy who helped write Jack Wagner's "All I Need," for God's sake, a guy who's midwifed songs by everyone from Aerosmith to Van Halen to No Doubt; and he turns around and in, like, a couple of days, figures out how to write Dave Matthews songs at least as well as Matthews himself.
It's not entirely clear what you call that talent -- I'd be tempted to call it genius -- but it's certainly the most intriguing thing about Everyday.