Counting Crows - Underwater Sunshine
Collective Sounds, 2012
One of the most fascinating things about this record is how unfamiliar most of these songs really are. There's a cover of "You Ain't Going Nowhere," written by The Byrds and popularized by Bob Dylan, who has been one of the band's biggest idols all along, but beyond that, most of these songs are gems that many listeners will never have heard before, and that gives the band a liberating freedom to make them completely their own. Of course, they do just that: from my first listen, whether I was listening to Duritz belt out the line, "throw your arms around my neck," from opener "Untitled (Love Song)" or the nostalgic B3-organ flourishes on Dawes' "All My Failures," this collection sounded like it could have been written by the Crows themselves, circa 1998. A lot of these songs have been making appearances in live sets for years now (like the incredibly loose take on Gram Parsons' "Return of the Grievous Angel," which kicks the album into its final leg, or the gorgeous alt-country sweep of "Four White Stallions" that follows), or have even been recorded as b-sides in the past (I stumbled upon a studio version of "Start Again," with the same sunny harmonies and keyboard licks, almost a decade ago). Across the board, these songs have a live and organic feel to them, and that atmosphere, combined with the Crows' customary layer of studio sheen, makes for a magnetic and involving listen.
But even for a die-hard Counting Crows fan such as myself, there are plenty of musical discoveries to be made here and plenty of nuances to explore. Undoubtedly, the band plays mostly in the comfort zone, picking songs that work very well within their wheelhouse, and taking few actual "risks," but I actually think that's a good thing for a covers record. That the band never resorts to gimmicky song choices or to the kind of ironic pop-music covers that have become customary in the Youtube and American Idol age, is testament to their love for music and their respect for the artists that have chosen to cover here. And it doesn't matter whether they're paying tribute to more established acts, like Dylan or Big Star, or tackling artists who fall into the realm of the obscure (like Coby Brown on the tumultuous "Hospital," or Kasey Anderson & The Honkies on the entrancing "Like Teenage Gravity," which is arguably the album's biggest triumph), because no matter what song they're performing, they do so with incredible musical skill, innate emotional connection, and palpable energy that begs to be witnessed in live format. It's not just that there isn't a bad song on "Underwater Sunshine," it's that the band makes each of them sound like an instant classic of their own devising, sequencing them into an album of perfect length, flow, and personal impact, and transforming them into a something that fits perfectly into their own body of work; clearly, Adam Duritz has made more than a few mixtapes in his time, but this is one that deserves to be played on repeat…well, at least until he decides to write another album.