If you detect a night-and-day shift in the middle of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, it’s by design. The first half, the “Saturday Nights” side, is aggressive and raw, while the “Sunday Morning” second-half is often filled with second thoughts fueled by a hangover cure within easy reach. As vocalist/songwriter Adam Duritz explains on the band’s website, “Saturday night is when you sin and Sunday is when you regret. Sinning is often done very loudly, angrily, bitterly, violently.”
Geez, who taught Duritz how to sin, because that sounds like no fun at all. And in some ways, neither is Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings. It’s an album of extremes, often capturing the far fringes of the band’s sound, with little in between to act as a buffer.
On the “Saturday Night” side, the band make their intentions clear in raucous fashion. “1492” may be the fiercest Counting Crows track yet, full of guitar squall and Duritz racing through his lyrics like he’s in someone’s face, spitting venom. It might be hard to feel much sympathy for the plague of willing Italian babes that’s apparently beset him, but he successfully conveys a sense of emptiness by the end, when he adapts the old children’s rhyme about Columbus to his own ends. Songs like “Hanging Tree”, “Los Angeles”, “Insignificant”, and “Cowboys” follow with their own variations of the band’s newfound three-guitar attack. It’s hit or miss. Many of the “Saturday Nights” songs have nice moments—the Wilco-like solo that punctuates “Insignificant”, the calm interlude about Boston winters in “Los Angeles”, the snarling twang that characterizes “Cowboys”—but overall, they abandon one of the band’s strengths: Duritz’s ability to wend his way through a song. His voice is a decidedly love-it-or-hate-it instrument, but there’s no denying that frequent Van Morrison comparisons are well-earned, if only for Duritz’s ability to toy with unconventional phrasings. Songs like “1492”, however, give him little room for this as he spends most of his time just keeping up.
The “Sunday Mornings” side evens things out a bit. Stray glimmers of country influence abound on the disc’s second half, from the banjo filigree of “When I Dream of Michelangelo” to the harmonica of “On Almost Any Sunday Morning”, but for the most part, it’s pretty straightforward midtempo rock and ballads. “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam” captures Duritz at his piano, much like how you’d expect one of his demos to sound. Similarly, “Washington Square” provides him with minimal backing, and “Le Ballet D’Or” runs at a low hum before blossoming into some intriguing dissonance. The “Sunday Mornings” portion, though, doesn’t always hold the same spark that you expect from the best Counting Crows songs, or the balanced mix between pop hooks and Duritz’s lyricism. So yes, this listener is admittedly placing a bit of a Catch-22 constraint on the band, complaining when they get too rowdy, and complaining when they calm it down.
Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings directly challenges notions of what a Counting Crows record should sound like, but the most interesting moments come when each side takes a break from itself (ironically, resulting in songs that come closest to what we expect from the band). “Sundays”, for example, takes a breather from the pace of its “Saturday” brethren to give Duritz’s vocals and lyrics room to breathe. The “Sunday Mornings” side, for its part, rocks out a few times to its own benefit and provides moments like the radio-ready “You Can’t Count on Me”. Somewhere in the middle of all that are the pieces of another great Counting Crows record. Maybe we’ll get it next time around.