Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 9: Counting Crows - August and Everything After

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

Today, we're resurrecting the feature after a five month hiatus. Chris disappeared off to the deserts and mountains of New Mexico, to the point where we at AbsolutePunk weren't sure whether or not he'd taken up work with Walter White. But now that he's back, we're hoping to get this going regularly once more. Today, we're glancing back at
August and Everything After, the debut album from Counting Crows and a record that turned 20 years old this month. Listen along with our Rdio playlist, and please, jump in and share your thoughts on this album that I now feel completely justified in calling a classic.

Craig Manning: “Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white,” Adam Duritz sings at the outset of the Counting Crows’ legendary debut album August and Everything After. In the pantheon of all-time great opening lines, I don’t think there’s ever been one quite like that one from “Round Here,” still the Crows’ greatest contribution to the American songbook. The entire first verse—the entire song, to a certain extent—burns like this all-encompassing run-on sentence, like a string of thoughts and emotions and profound imagery that is never going to come to an end. In Counting Crows live shows, that’s not a bad description for what happens: this song, frequently the opener of the set, goes on for ten minutes or more, featuring long improvisation sections in the middle where frontman Adam Duritz interpolates lyrics from other songs or from his own tortured mind. But “Round Here” is at its finest in studio format. It’s best with 12 seconds of silence preceding the introductory hit of the song’s signature chiming guitar line; it’s best with Duritz left isolated and alone for the first verse and chorus, just that guitar and an ambient organ behind him; and it’s best with the vibrant emotional climax that comes with the “I can’t see nothing around here” line 90 percent of the way through the song.

Legend has it that the studio recording of “Round Here” was the first and only time the band played the song in that arrangement. Because of that singularity, we get Duritz at his rawest and most emotional, a performance with the kind of uncomfortable intimacy that is only rarely heard on record. Duritz’s vocal alone makes “Round Here” the undisputed highlight of the disc, but a similar level of explosive passion persists throughout August and Everything After, as if every individual song is the last one Duritz will ever get to perform. His fervor pays off: next to U2’s The Joshua Tree and Jeff Buckley’s Grace, I consider August to be the most well-sung album in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s also my favorite album of the 1990s. Released on September 14, 1993, August and Everything After preceded my childhood musical awakening by a bit (I was still two months shy of my third birthday, after all), but it is still one of the first records I ever remember hearing and is still in my all-time top ten. I’ve been a huge fan of this band all my life: along with the Wallflowers, they ignited my love for music as a child, and when their greatest hits dropped in 2003, they re-ignited that love after years spent ignoring the album format and only listening to what the radio threw my way. Each Crows album took the band’s sound in a different direction, from the rage-fueled rock ‘n’ roll of 1996’s Recovering the Satellites to the bright summer pop of 2002’s Hard Candy, but while I adore both of those albums, nothing quite compares to the gloomy, autumnal folk of August and Everything After.

This album somehow sold 7 million copies back in the day, a feat that seems especially significant now considering the wreckage of the music industry and the inability of any folk band that isn’t Mumford & Sons to even approach similar levels of ubiquity. A big part of that success can be attributed to the flagship first single, “Mr. Jones,” a jangly folk-rock tune that namedropped Bob Dylan and pondered what it would be like to be famous. Ironically, the song made Duritz and his band into huge stars and sent radio listeners flocking to record stores (remember those?) to pick up August and Everything After. But while there are certainly accessible numbers here like “Mr. Jones” and “Rain King,” songs with these big, Americana-laced hooks, I can imagine there were also things going on with this record that many of those buyers weren’t quite prepared for.

Case in point: last week, when Grantland’s Steven Hyden compared August and Everything After’s legacyto that of Nirvana’s In Utero (which released just a day prior to August in 1993), he wrote that, where In Utero made moments of heartbreak and disconnection “seem noble,” “listening to August and Everything After makes loneliness seem like what it really is: a small and pitiful feeling drenched in a disgusting cocktail of tears and snot.” To a certain extent, that’s true: Kurt Cobain was an icon who spoke for a generation, while Adam Duritz was the guy expressing feelings that everyone had but no one wanted to talk about. If you need proof of that statement, just listen to the lyrics. “Perfect Blue Buildings” is an escapist anthem gone wrong, a depressing-as-hell dirge about what happens when you’re hopeless and alone and have taken to locking yourself in your apartment for days at a time rather than living your life. “Anna Begins” is about falling in love with your best friend only to see that person—and the close friendship you shared together—fade away when it all goes to hell. The guy in “Sullivan Street” knows his relationship is coming to an end, but still tries to hold it together by driving hundreds of miles for seemingly momentary moments with his lover. And the sparse piano balladry of “Raining in Baltimore” calls to mind that moment when you’re three-thousand-five-hundred miles away from the one person on Earth you care about, and you have no fucking idea how to make them happy.

It’s not all desolation, of course. No sad album can truly be complete without a counterbalancing force, and this album has plenty of them. Album closer “A Murder of One,” for example, sparks with hopeful resilience, while the narrator of “Time and Time Again” ardently vows to “set fire to this city” and ride out into the desert in search of a new beginning. But throughout the past 20 years, the loneliness and desperation of these songs are the qualities that have kept me coming back again and again. Hearing this record when I was old enough to understand it, that was one of the first times that I fully realized just how much visceral power music could have, and even after hundreds of plays, there are moments here that still stop me in my tracks. I have to listen to “Round Here” at least twice before moving on to the rest of the record; “Sullivan Street” remains one of my go-to night driving songs; and if “Raining in Baltimore” isn’t my favorite thing to play on acoustic guitar to spill my emotions to, then it’s damn close. In Utero might be getting the lion’s share of anniversary coverage this month, but for me August and Everything After will always be 1993’s definitive masterpiece.

Chris Collum:
Craig nailed it when he said that “Round Here” is the Crows’ greatest contribution to the American songbook. More than that even, it serves not only as an introduction to August and Everything After, but it is the crux of the album as well. Everything Duritz expresses on the next ten songs is distilled into five minutes with “Round Here.” Craig said that the “I can’t see nothing around here / Catch me when I’m falling” bit at the end of “Round Here” is the emotional climax of the song, and while that may be true, in my eyes the defining moment comes a little bit sooner. After a seeming out-of-left-field funky bridge, everything drops out again except that omnipresent guitar line and Duritz’s vocals as he almost-whispers: “She says it’s only in my head.”

August and Everything After is an album about loneliness to be certain, but there are thousands of rock records about that and most of them aren’t that good. What sets August apart is the way in which Duritz expresses his loneliness. He doesn’t just feel isolated from the world around him, he feels a complete disconnect with it. Duritz suffers from what he calls “a dissociative disorder, which makes the world seem like it's not real.” So yes, it literally is all in his head—but that’s what makes August so special. The way that he uses words to paint pictures that are in one sense very abstract but in another sense incredibly visceral is a rare talent. The opening lines of the album that Craig references are a perfect example of this.

My first experience with August and Everything After (apart from radio smash hit “Mr. Jones” naturally) was when I was 15, riding around the hills of northern New Mexico with my cross-country team. I’d end up calling those hills home for three consecutive summers a few years later, but that’s aside from the point. The van that our cross-country coach drove us in from Indiana all the way to New Mexico only had a tape player, and my coach only had one tape: August and Everything After. It was playing in the background at a low volume for most of the trip, but he’d turn it up to sing along occasionally—the man had a gloriously tuneless voice, and we’d all snicker quietly from the back seats.

Like many who have fallen in love with August, the first thing that struck me about it was Duritz’s voice. His vocals are simultaneously world-weary and incredibly full of passion, and without even paying any attention to the words that he’s saying it’s not difficult to tell what kind of emotions Duritz is trying to invoke. August is a sad record in a sense, but it’s a tender one at times as well, such as when he croons “I need a phone call / I need a raincoat” in “Raining in Baltimore.” And at its’ core, despite all the loneliness and depression, August is truly a hopeful record. The album ends with Duritz chanting “change, change, change” repeatedly because “you don’t wanna waste your life now baby.”

August was produced by T. Bone Burnett, a true legend of Americana. He adds a tangible warmth to the mix that accents the Crows’ poppy brand of roots rock well, particularly on songs like “Omaha.” That song also serves as another example of the universal appeal of Duritz’s lyrics. You don’t need to have ever been to Omaha or even know where it is on a map to understand the loneliness that can come from being by yourself in a strange town “somewhere in the middle of America.”

A lot of discussion about this record inevitably ends up focusing on how different it is from absolutely every other rock record released in 1993. That’s obviously true, but it isn’t all that relevant in my opinion. August is a record birthed in another time and place than the grunge movement and owes its debts to the likes of Dylan, Morrison and Springsteen rather than the likes of Pixies, Replacements and Sonic Youth. That the Counting Crows were able to make as much of a splash as they did in 1993 with such a different-sounding record is certainly remarkable, however. Furthermore, if 90s alt-rock had chosen the Crows as a blueprint for the rest of the decade as opposed to the worst parts of grunge, a few bands might have actually made listenable mainstream rock records post-1994.

But that was not the case obviously. Instead August stands alone as somewhat of a curiosity in the rock ‘n roll canon: its influences are obvious but it is not truly of the era in which it came out. It’s a very unique record, and sadly the Crows haven’t come anywhere close to making one as good since. But that’s alright. Nothing that has happened since 1993 would have eclipsed the glory of August anyway. Duritz got his well-deserved one shining moment. He got exactly what the protagonist of “Mr. Jones” wanted when he said that “When I look at the television I wanna see me / Staring right back at me.”

Big, big stars indeed.

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