This soulful, consistently satisfying debut album became an immediate smash hit that ushered in a period of immense popularity (remember Hootie and the Blowfish and the Gin Blossoms?) for rootsy rock n' roll. Obviously indebted to Van Morrison and The Band, Counting Crows offer consistently earthy and somber musings about everyday life. Dread locked singer Adam Duritz is a dreamer, and his longings and desires dominate the album. Duritz’s despairing whine is an acquired taste to some, while others view him as a fresh and unique new voice. I definitely lean towards the latter view, and the band tastefully backs him up with a mellow, musically rich groove that is both easy to listen to and emotionally satisfying. The minor weaknesses of the album are that perhaps there are a couple of lesser efforts ("Time and Time Again," "Ghost Train") and that it has a similarly subdued tone throughout. Upbeat exceptions are "Mr. Jones," the uplifting hit that broke the band big (simply put, it's one of my favorite songs ever), "Rain King" (my second favorite song here despite that awkward final "yeah!"), and "A Murder Of One." "Round Here" (the superb second single and concert favorite), "Omaha," "Perfect Blue Buildings," "Anna Begins," and "Sullivan Street" are other standout songs that sound like instantly familiar "classic rock" standards, and though I wouldn't mind seeing some more energy and variety on album number two, more of the same high quality stuff would also suit me just fine.
Recovering The Satellites (DGC ‘96) Rating: B+
After three years Counting Crows finally returned with their highly anticipated second release. It sold well, unlike many recent sophomore albums (Gin Blossoms, Blind Melon, and Hootie And The Blowfish come to mind), though not as stratospherically as the debut. Whereas August And Everything After had a mellow, retro ‘70s feel, Recovering The Satellites has a much harder-hitting modern rock sound, with intense songs such as “Catapult,” "Angels Of The Silences" (which seriously ROCKS), and “Have You Seen Me Lately?” supplying a hard charging kick (other songs like the stellar title track start slow and mellow but build impressively and get louder as the song moves along). The band's sound is more colorful and varied here, but the songwriting is less consistently memorable, and the band are most successful when they return to their rootsy approach on lighter songs such as "Daylight Fading" and the superb, catchy sing along hit "A Long December." Elsewhere, "I'm Not Sleeping" and "Another Horsedreamer's Blues" showcase the band's newfound penchant for elaborate string arrangements, but lovely songs like "Goodnight Elisabeth" and “Walkaways” (all 1:13 of it) convincingly show that the band are at their best when they manage to keep things simple. Throughout the album, Duritz goes overboard with recurring images of sleep, dreams, angels, and rain. Like many before him, Duritz seems to be trying to come to terms with his surprising success, decrying his lost innocence, while lines like "I can't find my way home" act as a metaphor for Duritz trying to find himself. If this hour-long album had been trimmed down a bit and Duritz had more lyrical ideas it would've improved the final product, but as it was this was still a fine follow-up from a band that looks like they're going to be in it for the long haul.
This Desert Life (DGC ’99) Rating: A-
In a brief but thus far bright career, Counting Crows have put out an album every three years. This third installment more closely resembles the group’s already classic first album August and Everything After than their more experimental sophomore release, Recovering The Satellites. By this I mean that rustic mid-tempo atmospherics are the norm, with keyboards and the occasional string arrangement anchoring the band’s basic, rootsy approach, which still owes a heavy debt to The Band and Van Morrison. “Amy Hit The Atmosphere,” "Four Days," “All My Friends,” and “I Wish I Was A Girl” are exactly the type of deceptively catchy mid-tempo songs that this band excels at, all in different ways, while hit single “Hanginaround” and “St. Robinson In His Cadillac Dream” are (rare) upbeat tracks sure to put a bounce in your step. Duritz is also riveting on the spare piano ballad “Colorblind,” and though he again tiredly fixates on metaphors about rain and sleep he has largely ditched the rock star whining that marred some of the previous album. He still plays up an introspective, misunderstood loner persona, but he also seems much happier and more at peace with himself. His mates do more than merely back him up, too, stretching out the loose grooves for an average song length of approximately five minutes, with the absolutely magnificent “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” approaching eight minutes and the relaxed, strings-heavy "High Life" also mostly earning its over 6 minute duration. The album is not without its weaknesses: Duritz still tends to over emote at times, the hidden track is at this juncture a most tired ploy (though the song itself, “Kid Things,” is another pretty good up-tempo number), and the album suffers mildly from a samey sounding blandness (my snobbish friend who calls this "generic dad rock" has a point but I like it a lot anyway!). Still, though the band will always be more of a heartfelt pleasure than a thrilling endeavor (consider that a warning to those of you who prefer a more rocking brand of rock 'n' roll, though live the band can kick out the jams), the Counting Crows have quickly become a predictably reliable institution, and in a good way. This Desert Life’s subtle satisfactions reward repeat plays and a careful attention to detail; here’s looking forward to 2002.
Hard Candy (Geffen ’02) Rating: B+
The Counting Crows’ profile has decreased slowly but surely since their stellar debut album, August and Everything After. Although Recovering The Satellites and especially This Desert Life were fine follow ups with at least one hit single apiece, perhaps something (more radio ready singles?) was missing. Acknowledging this and wanting to hear his own voice on the radio again (remember, this is a man who once sang “I want to be a big star”), band leader Adam Duritz has vowed to concentrate more on melody this time out. With his 7-piece band again lending rock solid support, Duritz immediately aims to make good on his promise with the title track, a jangly pop rocker that just might be the best Byrds rip since Tom Petty (or at least the Gin Blossoms). Songs such as “American Girls” (that’s Sheryl Crow on backing vocals), “If I Could Give All My Love – or – Richard Manual Is Dead,” “Miami,” and “New Frontier” are also more musically (if not lyrically) upbeat and rocking than what we’re accustomed to from these guys, who are better known for their bouts of moody introspection. There’s plenty of that here, too, and common Crows lyrical themes like insomnia, love, and loneliness also appear throughout the album. In addition to The Byrds, “Butterfly In Reverse” sounds an awful lot like the late ‘80s/early ‘90s cult band American Music Club, while “New Frontier” is clearly inspired by early R.E.M. (except for the cheesy keyboards, which crop up throughout the album and take some getting used to). But the Counting Crows have never been a band to reinvent the wheel, and their consistently strong songwriting and attention to detail make up for any shortcomings in originality. We may have heard the funky sex guitar on “Good Time” and the cheesy but fun backing vocals that appear on “American Girls” and “Why Should You Come When I Call” before, but these time tested pop tropes still work, and Duritz isn’t afraid to use them. A surprising, spine tingling falsetto (“Miami,” my favorite song here), a beautiful trumpet part interspersed with pretty Spanish guitar (“Carriage,” another highlight), and some terrific lyrical sound bites (“what brings me down is love, because I never get enough”; “had a lot of girlfriends, I should have known them”) are other examples that attest to Duritz’s commitment to his craft. Several sing along choruses (“Up All Night (Frankie Miller Goes To Hollywood)” is another highlight), tasteful string arrangements, and even some choice guitar solos also help keep this album’s thirteen songs sounding fresh and interesting far more often than not. Hard Candy is the band’s most diverse and rocking collection of songs since Recovering The Satellites, but like that album this one is less cohesive than either August and Everything After or This Desert Life, two superior albums whose songs really seemed to belong together. In addition, sometimes Duritz tries a little too hard to be radio friendly, resulting in clichéd or clumsy moments, while the boredom factor also starts to creep in at times, particularly towards the end of this hour-long album. Still, this album's negative to lukewarm reviews seem unwarranted to me, as the album's wider ranging than usual songs and consistent quality (“Holiday In Spain” is also excellent) should please the majority of the bands fan base. Note: Their cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” originally appeared as a hidden track here, but the single version with Vanessa Carlton on backing vocals was subsequently substituted as an official (14th) track after it became a hit.
Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (Geffen ’08) Rating: B+
So much for the Counting Crows releasing an album every three years; this one took a whopping six (though with a hit Joni Mitchell cover song (“Big Yellow Taxi”) with Vanessa Carlton and a popular Shrek 2 soundtrack song (“Accidentally In Love”) they weren't totally out of the limelight in the interim), but it's still a quality release just like all their others. It has its flaws, the main one being the thematic sequencing, as the first six songs (the Saturday Nights part) are produced by Gil Norton and are mostly rocking, while the rest of the album (the Sunday Mornings part) was produced by Brian Deck and contains mellower, folksier meditations (an exception is the also rocking last song, "Come Around," which was also produced by Norton). I complained about such a setup in my review of the Foo Fighters' In Your Honor, and I still think that grouping songs together by musical style is a flawed concept, as the second half of this album starts to drag a bit as one instrumentally sparse, morose ballad follows another. Don't get me wrong, there are some really good songs ("Washington Square," "You Can't Count On Me," "Come Around") and evocative song titles ("When I Dream Of Michelangelo," "On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago") on side two (let's pretend there is still such a thing as album sides, ok?), but side one is superior, as the band proves that they can in fact rock convincingly. "1492" and "Cowboys" rock harder than any Crows song since "Angels Of The Silences," and "Hanging Tree" also has a big sound and a hooky chorus. "Los Angeles" has soulful guitar riffs and an admirable intensity but isn't as memorable, but "Sundays" and "Insignificant" offer additional highlights, the former mixing funky rock and summery pop, the latter another strong rocker that builds impressively and even features a rare guitar solo (so does "Cowboys" for that matter). Without getting into more details about individual songs, I'll try to sum up the album's themes by saying that side one shows Duritz the thrill seeker on the prowl, while side two follows with the guilt-laden regret of "what did I do last night?" Of course, as per usual Duritz is searching for self-fulfillment, but an empty loneliness and self-loathing are still constant companions, and oft-quotable sound bites, delivered with vocal affectations that aren't for everybody, remain Counting Crows trademarks. Ultimately, this is another very good album by a very good band, it's just that I think it could've been better had it been presented differently, and if perhaps a couple of tracks had been removed from side two, thereby providing a better overall balance.
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