I was nearly killed one rainy evening as my car hydroplaned headfirst into oncoming traffic on Beach Drive NW while the radio blasted “What Would You Say?,” the smash hit from the Dave Matthews Band’s 1994 major-label debut, Under the Table & Dreaming. My ill-conceived relationship with a twentysomething Catholic schoolgirl was melodramatized by the band’s 1995 follow-up album Crash. It’s quite a testament to DMB that such ugly associations don’t even slightly blemish its white-boy-soulful, jazzy sound for me. Before These Crowded Streets is the band’s long-anticipated third album on a major label. It shows even more musical growth than that charted between the first two albums, which may disappoint the bubblegum crowd looking for a new generational jingle. But it’s good for those of us who egocentrically dig the way we’re leaving adolescence in the company of the 31-year-old Charlottesville, Va., resident. Matthews’ lyrics have progressed beyond fun (but essentially trite) carpe-diem commonplaces; on Crowded Streets he explores darker themes and deeper conflicts. With “The Stone,” for instance, he asks a lover to join him on a path they both know to be dangerous and essentially wrong; on “Spoon,” he conjures loss and the elusiveness of a perfect love: “Spoon in spoon/Stirring my coffee/I thought of you/And turned to the gate/On my way came up with the answers/I scratched my head/And the answers were gone.” The band—as always showcasing the electric violin of Boyd Tinsley—fills the studio recording with the energy of a live show, demonstrating the texture we’ve come to expect from it, especially when joined by the sad, slow banjo-strummin’ of Bela Fleck and the uncharacteristically restrained background vocals of Alanis Morissette. While the resulting tunes—including the hauntingly Egyptian-sounding “The Last Stop” and the disc’s one released single, the foreboding “Don’t Drink the Water”—aren’t quite as catchy as the band’s previous Top-40 efforts, they are gutsier and more moving.—Jake Tapper

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