Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"And all at once you look across a crowded room to see the way that light attaches to a girl..."

 A Tribute to the Music of Counting Crows

When I think about the bands that have defined my musical experience the most, there aren't many that I can list higher than Counting Crows. Back in the mid-90s, my music listening was limited to whatever CDs my parents would play in the car or whatever albums my brother would bring home one day to play on his boombox. I remember afternoons and evenings sitting around in the basement, listening to his CD collection, picking out the ones I liked most, and having him make me cassette tape copies of those. There are albums and artists I fell in love with back then that I still listen to regularly: The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse remains one of my favorite albums; I'm still waiting for the new Matchbox Twenty album, still wondering what would have happened if Oasis ever made another record as good as Morning Glory, and most certainly still enthralled by the flawless trinity of songs that ends Third Eye Blind's self-titled album. Hell, I might even still have some of those tapes. I believe Green Day's Dookie and Weird Al's Bad Hair Day were also among the collection. I was super cool.

One of my earliest musical memories was hearing Counting Crows for the first time. We were climbing into the car after some bike trip, and my brother slipped my step dad's copy of August and Everything After into the CD player. "Mr. Jones" issued from the speakers, and I loved it immediately. It's a moment I would think of a lot a little less than a decade later, when I bought the band's greatest hits collection (called Films About Ghosts, after one of my all-time favorite lyrics from "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby"). At that point in time, I think I owned about six CDs, half of which were Creed (I am not proud of this), but that CD, which contained 16 of the Crows' songs, was a turning point. Throughout that winter, I played that record almost every day, and those songs brought life into the bleak winter weather that covers my hometown every year: the rip roaring electricity of "Angels of the Silences," the emotional swell of "Round Here," the lyrical perfection of "A Long December" and "Mrs. Potter," and the nostalgic beauty of "Recovering the Satellites," they all became a part of me.

Naturally, my impulsive purchase of the greatest hits record only made me want to delve deeper into the band's back catalog, a key event in my musical evolution. Up to that point I'd always pretty much been a "singles" guy. I had a couple of albums (again, not proud), but most of my listening revolved around the mix CDs that I made out of songs I heard on the radio or on TV shows (most of these are still at least partially listenable, thankfully). That was about to change. I dug up my parents' copy of August and my brother's copy of Recovering the Satellites and I dove in. I still maintain the former is one of the greatest records of all time, and I was shocked that most of the album's best songs ("Round Here" and "Anna Begins" being the exceptions) were left off of Films. Over the years, every song on that album has come to mean something to me. The lyrics of "Time and Time Again" took my breath away, while the climactic scope of "A Murder of One" (and an impeccable vocal performance from frontman Adam Duritz), made it one of my favorite songs. "Sullivan Street" became one of my go-to nighttime drive songs when I finally got my first car, and the palpable emotion I could hear in Duritz' voice on key album cuts like "Anna Begins," "Raining in Baltimore" and "Round Here" keep him on the list of my all-time favorite singers. For all of those reasons and many more, August remains my favorite album of the 90s. The loneliness and desperation of those songs have kept me coming back, year after year, even as other records that I loved as a kid have begun to fall hollow; that record was one of the first times I realized just how much visceral, emotional power music could have, and that discovery is one that continues to drive my love of music, even to this day.

Recovering the Satellites was (and is) a much more challenging record. On "Mr. Jones," Duritz sang, "when I look at the television, I wanna see me staring right back at me." It was a big pop song from a guy who wanted to be big and popular, and the irony was, it was just the song that granted him those wishes. Satellites finds him looking around at what his life has become since he wrote that song and rebelling against that fame. Right from the first two tracks, the scorching back to back duo of "Catapult" and "Angels of the Silences," it's clear that this isn't the same band that laid down the folky jams on August. The first half of the record finds them turning up the electricity and delivering a set of songs full of anger, confusion and nostalgic yearning for simpler times. It's a master class in intensity, from the blistering build of "I'm Not Sleeping" to the memorable riff on "Have You Seen Me Lately," though it's broken up a bit by the dusky nostalgic of "Daylight Fading" and the gorgeous alt-country lilt of "Goodnight Elisabeth." It's when the rage begins to dissipate and the amplifiers go down that the record becomes an enigma, and I've always had a much harder time getting a handle on the second half for that reason. The songs range from stark piano ballads ("Miller's Angels," the most depressing song Duritz ever wrote) to almost blues-rock experimentation ("Another Horsedreamer's Blues," "Mercury") to what might be the strangest album cut I've ever heard from an established band ("Monkey"), but amidst this oddly appealing collection of deep cuts are three of the best songs in the discography: the title track, "A Long December" and "Walkaways," which I've often thought of as my favorite Counting Crows song. It's less than a minute and a half long, just 16 bars of Duritz and an acoustic guitar, bidding a bittersweet farewell to...well, I'm not so sure. "Someday, I'm gonna stay," he sings in the album's dying moments. "But not today."

Satellites has never been my favorite Counting Crows album, but every time I listen to, it draws me in and beguiles me. I've always thought of it as an inconsistent record, not in the strength of its material but in its mood and sound, and the result is a disjointed, confusing collection of songs, but it's also a truly captivating one. It's a portrait of a troubled mind and of a man who got everything he wished for and realized it was both a blessing and a curse. Duritz has often stated his belief that Recovering the Satellites is the band's finest work, and while I don't necessarily agree with him, I can see where he is coming from.

The following summer, I bought Hard Candy, which was, at the time, the band's most recent record. Awhile ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of the "summer soundtrack" album in my life, that album that comes along and defines the long, glorious months of that season. Hard Candy was my first summer soundtrack album, and even as I've grown up and summers have come and gone, I can still come back to it on a beautiful, warm summer night and feel the same way I always have. On "Up All Night," Duritz sings, "we could drive out to the dunes tonight, 'cause summer's almost here," and on "Miami," it's "the bus is running, it's time to leave, this summer's gone and so are we." Those songs are the cornerstones of this record, and they've pretty much bookended each of my summers since the day this record came into my life. The former takes me back to those nights just before summer breaks, when you can almost taste the coming season, and when I hear the latter, I hear the endings of half a dozen perfect summers and my heart still aches for them. When I listen to records for the first time today, the first thing that strikes me is the emotional aspect in the singer's voice, and that's all thanks to listening to Adam Duritz for so many years. I still remember the first time I listened to "Miami." The way that song builds into this climactic vocal tour-de-force still blows me away, but back then, I don't think I'd ever heard anything like it. And yet even despite how terrific that song (and many others) are, Hard Candy has always been written off by fans, considered by some to be the weakest link in their discography. There aren't many more misunderstood records in my collection. The naysayers saw Candy as the record where the long tortured Adam Duritz sold out, cheered up, and wrote bunch of bubblegum pop songs; nothing could be further from the truth. The hooks are the brightest the band has ever written, drenched in sunny pop production and instrumentation, but underneath that are some of the most strikingly dark songs Duritz has ever written, whether he's imagining a suicide ("Black & Blue"), struggling with his longstanding battles with insomnia and depression ("Goodnight L.A.," "Holiday in Spain"), dealing with a miscarriage ("Carriage"), or going through a particularly damaging break-up ("Miami"). The combination of the album's bright pop hooks with its dark subject matter has always been incredibly compelling to me, and it's something that's kept me coming back to this album over and over again. It reminds me, in that regard, of Butch Walker's Letters, and much like that album, it's an absolute love letter to all kinds of pop music, from rootsy classic rock ("If I Could Give All My Love"), to spiraling synth-pop ("New Frontier") to songs that sound like they would have been right at home in a classic stage musical ("Butterfly in Reverse," "Why Should You Come When I Call?"). There's not a bad song on the set, and for a long time, Hard Candy was my all time favorite album.

This Desert Life and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings are the lesser pieces of the catalog, in my eyes, though the former is another fantastic, interesting direction for the band to take, and the latter contains some truly stellar songs. Desert Life was the last of the initial four that I got in to, and the one I liked the least of those, but there are a lot of moments on that record that still bring back great memories. The outstanding lyricism in "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" put the song among Adam's greatest accomplishments, while "Speedway" is one of his most effective break-up songs and "Colorblind" is one of the most hypnotic songs ever, by anyone. And then there's the vaguely experimental atmosphere running through the likes of "High Life" and "I Wish I Was a Girl" (another very, very strange song), the gorgeously downbeat "Amy Hit the Atmosphere," and the gloriously climactic "get into my car and drive!" moment at the end of "St. Robinson in his Cadillac Dream," the album's finale. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is, I think, the only less than stellar record in the discography, though when it came out, I didn't think so. I bought it on release day, in March of 2008, nearly six years removed from Hard Candy's arrival, and I played the hell out of it. The Saturday Nights portion has always been great, revitalizing the sound the band used on Satellites, and culminating in "Cowboys," the kind of furiously angry anthem you play at full volume in the car when you're pissed off (I can't do this anymore, since I drive far too fast when I do). The Sunday Mornings portion is blessed with some truly gorgeous folk songs ("Washington Square," "On Almost Any Sunday Morning," "When I Dream of Michelangelo"), but I've always thought it gets more and more bogged down by its concept as it goes. That doesn't stop the Crows from delivering a typically strong closer (the fantastic "Come Around"), but there's a preponderance of filler ("Tuesday in Amsterdam" is the dullest song Adam Duritz has ever written), and the record ends up feeling both overlong and not quite effective in its themes. That said, and despite the fact that its fallen out of regular rotation since 2008, I'm not sure if there was a record I played more that year. It dropped three days before my spring break, after an endless wait for new music from the band and what had felt like the longest winter of my life, and it pretty much became the soundtrack for that break (an impromptu road trip to New York City) and the rest of the spring that followed.

And now there's a covers album on the way. It's called Underwater Sunshine, out March 27th, and featuring a long slate of songs that the Crows have been playing and making their own for years now. Many of them have made fairly regular appearances in live shows (and have likely made their way onto the iPods of Crows fans, thanks to the band's open door policy for bootleggers), and a few have even been recorded in the studio before (hell, I downloaded their version of "Start Again" on the same day that I first heard "Up All Night). My point is, I've always known many of these songs more for the band's covers of them than for their original versions, and as a result, I'm thinking this will almost feel like a brand new, full-length record from them, to me. Anyway, here's the song list:

"Jumping Jesus" by Sordid Humor
"Start Again" by Teenage Fanclub
"All My Failures" by Dawes
"Meet On The Ledge" by Fairport Convention
"Like Teenage Gravity" by Kasey Anderson & The Honkies
"Ballad of El Goodo" by Big Star
"Coming Around" by Travis
"Four White Stallions" by Tender Mercies
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" by Bob Dylan (originally recorded by The Byrds)
"Untitled (Love Song)" by The Romany Rye
"Ooh La La" by The Faces
"Hospital" By Coby Brown
"Return of the Grievous Angel" by Gram Parsons
"Mercy" by Tender Mercies
"Amie" by Pure Prairie League

I, for one, am excited about this record. One of the great things about the Counting Crows is their obvious love of music, a love that permeates every moment of every record they've made and probably every live show they've ever played. I still haven't seen them live, but their aren't many acts with better bootleg collections, and listening to live versions of their songs is riveting because of their tendency to reinvent things on the spot. It's still amazing to me that, even after months spent not listening to this band, a live version of "Round Here" can still pop up on shuffle and blow my mind. The way Adam invests himself emotionally in his live performances, that song in particular, is a stunning thing to hear, and it places this band near the top of the "artists I need to see live" list. My hope is that we'll get a tour for this covers record, or that maybe it will even inspire Adam to start work on another full length record. But even if Duritz is at the point of his life where he wants to do the band on a more part-time basis than he once did, and even if he never writes another record (this does seem possible, judging by the ever increasing gaps between albums), at least I still have the records: I'll always have August for those rainy days, Satellites for those gloomy, wintery afternoons, Hard Candy for warm summer nights and This Desert Life for every first day of Spring. And, above all, I'll always have the memories of how those records came along when I was 13 years old and changed my life.

1 comment:

  1. I've just read your post, randomnly searching for some unknown counting crows data. All i can say is thank you, it was really touching the way u describe those albums and i share a lot of your points of view.
    The crows are my favourite band of all times. Years and Years along me this songs always pop up and crash into my head.

    Again, thanks and rock on!