[6 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You gotta hear this new Counting Crows album, they sound like a BAND!
Which, I know, is a silly and possibly rockist thing to say, but sometimes you just want guys playing their instruments together with creativity and joy. (I’d say “women” too, but the Crows aren’t so integrated.) For Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), the Crows’ first album on indie label Cooking Vinyl, they’ve recorded 15 covers with as fine a sense of group interplay as you’ll find outside the jazz world.
“Covers?” I hear you say with some alarm. “Isn’t this the band who blighted the Two Weeks Notice soundtrack with a terrible version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, itself a pretty bad song?” Yes, over the course of their respectable 20 year career, the Crows have left behind them a smattering of cloying idiocy for which they’ll one day have to answer. Not here, though. They’ve picked a fine assortment of songs. There’s sinister folk from Fairport Convention, whose record What We Did On Our Holidays provided half this album’s title. There’s pop both Brit- and power- from the likes of Travis, Teenage Fanclub, and Big Star. Dylan and the Band show up, as you’d expect, but also the Faces and Pure Prairie League. And the Crows have dug up plenty of songs by lesser known acts, including bands that include moonlighting Counting Crows. Several alt-country snoozes aside, these are smart choices.
They sound even smarter played by this group of musicians. The entertaining liner notes, mostly by lead singer and only-Counting-Crow-anyone-can-name Adam Duritz, mention several times how much they all value being in a band. It’s not just the group rates at brothels—the Crows value all the little things bands DO, the learned language of phrases and ideas and musical clichés, if you want, that they can deploy to achieve certain effects. Tricks of the trade!
For example, lead single “Untitled (Love Song)”, a floppy Romany Rye song that could’ve easily been titled “Throw Your Arms Around My Neck” (or maybe just “Neck” if they were Brad Paisley), starts with a plain old electric guitar riff over which Duritz starts singing, then another electric saunters in, along with the drums and piano, until finally the whole band is lurching around with their three chords. This additive maneuver is one thing you can do with a band, particularly a band containing three guitarists; in musical parlance it’s known as the “Hotel California”. (Enjoy the colitas!) The Crows admire such addition and employ it on several other tunes, including Fanclub’s “Start Again” and Fairport’s “Meet On the Ledge”.
But that’s not all! They pull the old “crescendo coming out of the last verse” on Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel”, which also features a drummer count-off and a background singer who sounds like a drunken lunatic and/or Keith Richards. Coby Brown’s wonderful “Hospital” gets shocked to life by a buzzsaw electric riff over acoustic strumming. Even a fairly boring song like Dawes’s “All My Failures” becomes a little less boring through its band treatment, which includes some two-against-three staggering and Charley Gillingham’s attempts to make the most dramatic Hammond organ swoosh ever. And sometimes the strategy is simply to smoke the pants (and metaphors) right off the song, as in their blistering rendition of Dylan’s Big Pink staple “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, during which Duritz collapses into fits.
Of course, not all songs need such showbiz. Travis’s “Coming Around” follows the original down to the Who-like Britpop harmonies; acoustic hoedowns like PPL’s “Aime” and the Faces’ “Ooh La La” settle for being simply irresistible. Duritz sings the album’s closer, Big Star’s “The Ballad of El Goodo”, with straightforward phrasing and an open throat, though he can’t resist slipping in some falsetto ornamentation later in the song. He’s a very good singer, you know? Reminds me of his contemporary Garth Brooks; there’s always the danger they’ll rely too much on their trademark vocal tics, in Duritz’s case oddly-shaped warbles and wordless scatting nonsense. Throughout this album, though, Duritz delivers the songs with unmannered ease, saving his Duritz stuff for key moments like the meltdown section of the Dylan song. The rhythm section keeps things syncopatin’ and the band has a fine time with piano, mandolin, accordion, and thick and noisy electric guitar tones. You wouldn’t think an album made up largely of country-rock covers would be so colorful.
If you want rock ‘n’ roll to be galvanizing rebellion or something, Underwater Sunshine isn’t the place for you. But if you want your rock ‘n’ rollers to offer a feasible career option that sounds great, the Counting Crows do. Is it still rock ‘n’ roll? What else you gonna call it?