Better Than Expected
A Trio of Pleasant Surprises

We’ve talked a lot in this column about expectations, and how they color reactions to music. And I’ve written reams about records that I expected to be good, but turned out to be mediocre, or worse. I’ve noticed, though, that we haven’t really discussed it from the other angle. What about albums you expect to be crap, but which end up impressing you?

It’s no secret that lowered expectations can be good for an artist with something to prove. I call it the Waterworld Effect, after Kevin Costner’s 1995 sci-fi epic. At the time, its $175 million budget made it the most expensive film ever made, and rumors of its inescapable crappiness surrounded its release. (If I recall, some critics referred to it as Fishtar, after a similarly expensive flop.) Waterworld didn’t do very well. But when I went to see it, I left the theater happy. It was a mediocre movie, all told, but it cleared the very low bar I’d set for it easily, and ended up impressing me.

But the Waterworld Effect is about average art benefiting from low expectations. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about genuinely terrific records, ones that I’d enjoy regardless of baggage. I’m talking about the sweet surprise of hearing something sublime from a band I’d written off, or barely explored. There are better things about being an obsessive music fan, but none offers that particular thrill of rediscovering something worthy.

For instance. I have always liked the Dave Matthews Band. I know that’s an admission I’m not supposed to make – they’re almost universally dismissed as dad-rock hippies – but I’ve been into their sound since I first heard “Jimi Thing” playing in a record store in Massachusetts in 1994. I’ve stuck with them ever since, but I’ve been tempted to jump ship more than once in the intervening years. After the tremendous Before These Crowded Streets in 1998, they started sliding down, a precipitous drop that culminated in the death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore in 2008.

After that, I figured they were done. The band rallied to finish the album they were working on when Moore died, and the result was the surprisingly good Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King. But I thought of that as a finale, a last grasp at greatness. I figured they’d reached deep for that record, in memory of Moore, and they would most likely just fade away once it was released.

What I didn’t expect is that they’d outdo it, and everything they’ve released since Crowded Streets, with their new album, Away From the World. In fact, I was so sure this album would be terrible that I neglected to listen to it for more than a month, letting it collect dust in my “someday” pile. When I finally gave this platter a spin, I was amazed. Not only is this the best set of songs Matthews has put together in more than a decade, the band sounds revitalized playing them.

Away From the World brings producer Steve Lillywhite back into the fold for the first time since the aborted 1999-2000 sessions that followed Crowded Streets. In a lot of ways, those sessions were the turning point – after scrapping them, the band made the horrid, pop-encrusted Everyday, and the slide began in earnest. So bringing Lillywhite back is a symbolic statement of purpose. And the album sounds like it. This album is definitely not the old-school, wrist-breaking, passionate DMB – they’re older, and they’ve mellowed out. But even in its more mid-tempo grooves, this record sounds alive.

Take “Belly Belly Nice,” which rises above its awful title on a kinetic acoustic guitar groove and some high-powered sax work from longtime guest Jeff Coffin. When it slides into the chorus (“You can’t get too much love”), it’s like the sound of the band remembering what made them great. “Mercy” is a lovely little ballad, Matthews’ aging voice sounding wiser than ever, and “Gaucho” is a slippery epic, ducking and diving between time signatures. On this one especially, Carter Beauford continues to make the case for himself as one of the finest drummers around.

And that’s the thing with the DMB. Matthews may have it in his head that we’re here for him, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s always been his band. Beauford is amazing, bassist Stefan Lessard is nimble, and violinist Boyd Tinsley continues to shine. It’s the interplay between these guys and Matthews’ guitar that makes DMB records for me, and the more over-produced they are, the more they rely on pop gloss and sonic layering, the less interesting they become.

Away From the World sidesteps all that like no record they’ve made since the ‘90s. This one’s about the band playing, which is all I want to hear. The final track, a nine-minute wonder called “Drunken Soldier,” is the epitome of this approach – the song is killer, and everyone’s in top form, jamming in a room. And in the process, they sound reawakened, ready to leave the tragedy of 2008 behind them and start anew. I honestly didn’t think they still had something like this in them. I’m happy to be wrong.

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I’ve never had a lot of time for Norah Jones.

I’ve heard her stuff, of course. I couldn’t escape “Don’t Know Why” in 2002, as much as I wanted to, and I’ve listened to scattered singles in the years since. But I’ve never liked her enough to go deeper. There’s a sleepy, coffeehouse-safe vibe to her brand of lite jazz that I just couldn’t get beyond. I like her kitschy side project, the Little Willies, but mainly for her bandmate Richard Julian, who remains a criminally underappreciated artist. As for Jones, she’s never made much of an impression.

I’m not sure why I bought Little Broken Hearts, her fifth album. I expect it was curiosity – she appears on the cover in a wild wig, posing like the girl on the Mudhoney poster, and she teamed up with Danger Mouse, who co-wrote and produced the whole thing. You all know Danger Mouse – one half of Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, manned the boards for the last three Black Keys albums, has worked with Gorillaz and Beck. He’s never done lite jazz in his life.

So yeah, I was curious, and I’m glad I was, because Little Broken Hearts is excellent. It’s not quite the messy, trashy wonder the cover promises, but it does find Jones digging into new styles, and draping that purring voice over new backdrops. The record has a haunted, downtempo feel to it, but it elicits shivers, not yawns. Danger Mouse keeps things surprisingly minimal – the minor-key “Take It Back” sticks with two guitars and bass for half its running time, before subtle drums and keys come in. “She’s 22” is barely even there – just some wisps of guitar and piano.

But when Danger Mouse asserts himself, as on the trippy “After the Fall,” the results are spectacular. The effects on Jones’ normally unaffected voice are perfect, cutting through the little web of skipping drums, plinking guitars and washed-out organs. There isn’t much of a melody, but the atmosphere is enough. “4 Broken Hearts” is a reverbed, Chris Isaak-esque shimmy, dark and sexy. “Travelin’ On” sounds like the closing scene of a move like True Romance, in which the broken and bloodied hero heads off into the sunset with his love, sad but hopeful.

The loudest thing here is “Happy Pills,” and it really isn’t that loud. Its muted saxophone lines accent a rhythm that straddles doo-wop and the Cars, Jones crooning, “Please just let me go.” The production is marvelous, full of little details, and Jones rises to the occasion well. It’s the one shaft of light here – Jones turns murderous on the next track, “Miriam,” and then closes things out with a slinky, six-minute sorta-reggae crawl called “All a Dream.” The hook line is “You never hurt someone who wants to learn to be your slave.” Like much of Little Broken Hearts, this is not a portrait of a healthy relationship.

It is, however, a portrait of an artist looking to break out of her self-created mold. It’s been a while since I’ve heard an artistic reinvention as successful as the one Jones pulls off on Little Broken Hearts. For the first time ever, I’m interested to hear where she goes next.

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And finally, we have Shiny Toy Guns.

I first heard this Los Angeles band when they opened for Mutemath back in 2006. I thought they were ridiculous. They wore face paint, the drummer spent more time twirling his sticks and pointing to the ceiling than he did drumming, and the candy-coated electro-stomp they pumped out was exactly the wrong style to play to Mutemath fans. When they played “Le Disko,” their annoying single, I wanted to run screaming.

Perhaps the great Mutemath show I saw later that night tempered my contempt, because I went out and bought Shiny Toy Guns’ debut album, We Are Pilots, and enjoyed it. They’re definitely a studio band, constructing most of their sound out of stacked synthesizers, and even though “Le Disko” was still irritating, other tunes like “You Are the One” and “Don’t Cry Out” showed a refined sense of drama and melody. In short, the record is a pretty good slice of trashy electronic pop.

And then it all went south. Vocalist Carah Faye quit, and Chad Petree and Jeremy Dawson soldiered on with a darker, more dismal second album, Season of Poison, which tanked horribly. And then, for three years, Petree and Dawson talked about their third album, letting release date after release date fly by. They’d clearly lost their way. I knew how this story would end – the third record would probably come out, and it would probably be a cobbled-together, over-thought mess, and then the band would disintegrate.

Well, I have to say, way to prove me wrong.

The third Shiny Toy Guns album, fittingly titled III, is marvelous. It may be one of the best electronic pop albums I’ve heard in a couple years. The record finds Faye rejoining the fold, and the band rediscovering its footing. Gone are the sheets of guitar from Season of Poison – this album is almost entirely synth-driven, and the production by Petree and Dawson is glimmering. The sound is exactly right, a huge step up from the analog burbles of Pilots.

But better than that, the songs are superb. Even with Faye back in the ranks, the band only delivers one riff on “Le Disko” – it’s called “Speaking Japanese,” and it’s pretty great, if kitschy. The rest of III, however, is surprisingly mature, deeply melodic, dark and (believe it or not) restrained. It opens with “Somewhere to Hide,” a sparkling, catchy pop song just drenched in snaking synth lines – it’s so good that the members of Garbage are probably kicking themselves for not writing it. The electrifying “Carrie” skips along at a brisk pace, and “If I Lost You” brings early Pet Shop Boys to mind.

Once “Speaking Japanese” is over, the album shows its true colors. “Mercy” is a stunningly good epic, its atmospheric opening leading into a wordless wonder of a chorus. “Wait For Me” is slow simmer, clouds of synths supporting the twining voices of Faye and Petree. “Fading Listening” sounds like Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac (really), and “The Sun” keeps the mood going with a soaring anthem. The final six songs, in fact, are all tremendous, and never once slip into the trashy dance-pop the band made its name with. The last track, “Take Me Back to Where I Was,” is even an unaffected, earnest piano ballad.

I’m very surprised by how much I like III. Before this, Shiny Toy Guns was one of those bands I’d decided to follow, but didn’t love. Now, I would truly miss them if they called it quits. III is an almost modest, vulnerable record, and that I was not expecting. This is an album that was crafted with care, and it draws me in, demanding I play it again and again. I’ve already heard it more times than Pilots and Poison combined. While I was writing them off, Shiny Toy Guns went and wrote a new chapter. Here’s to many more.

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Next week, maybe that column of unexpected returns, but maybe something else. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.