When Counting Crows first exploded into stardom in 1994, they fit nicely into a roots-rock niche that included breakout work by Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews Band. Indeed, for a short time, it seemed as if adult contemporary rock would be the defining sound of the 1990s, and even latter-day whipping boys Hootie and the Blowfish were unabashedly plugged into everyone's stereos. "Mr. Jones" seemed to slide right into place, and helped propel the band's debut album, August and Everything After, to the top of the charts.
A mere decade later, it's the adult market that has become marginalized as the record industry has returned to the tried-and-true formula of milking teens for their allowance money. In that time, Counting Crows very nearly fell victim to the same backlash that felled the mighty Hootie. When discussing why it took so long for the band to record the 1996 follow-up, Recovering the Satellites, (two years being a lifetime in fickle pop memory), lead singer and primary songwriter Adam Duritz explained that he'd undergone severe bouts of depression after repeatedly being told by strangers that he "sucked". Satellites reflected that alienation and frustration, turning out to be an even darker and more morose album than the already-somber August. Despite having some middling success with "A Long December" and "Daylight Fading", it seemed that the light was already dimming on Counting Crows, yet another victim of the legendary "sophomore slump".
Less apparent, however, was that Satellites marked an expansion of sorts for the band, and was an early indicator of things to come. Despite being exceedingly self-reflective and gloomy, the disc found Duritz spreading his wings (so to speak) and breaking out of the twangy mold that defined nearly every track of August. When he recovered a second time and produced 1999's This Desert Life, it was clear that Duritz was ready to start making real headway into various musical directions. If "Hangin' Around" was very obviously the radio single, the rest of the album was filled with more durable and impressive forays into the classic rock roots that underpinned the Counting Crows sound.
Now, with Hard Candy, Counting Crows have unveiled what turns out to be their best, most mature, and most vital effort to date. Even as Sheryl Crow transforms herself into a glossy-lipped model and Dave Matthews becomes soundtrack fodder for Adam Sandler movies, Duritz and company have both stuck to their guns and transformed themselves as well. The heavy debts to The Band and R.E.M. are still present, but Duritz seems to have finally found the courage to explore the whole pop palette and cover a wide range of Americana. Yes, Duritz's lyrical themes of self-effacing wistfulness are still intact, but they've been tempered by a sense of worldliness that keeps them from sounding like adolescent emoting. And, perhaps most crucially, the piercing whine of Duritz's ultra-distinctive voice (which contributed to much of the post-August backlash), has been reined in to the point where his pain is manageable and endearing rather than irritating.
For much of Hard Candy, the sound is simply a more refined, slightly more expansive continuation of the tracks from This Desert Life. The title track, "American Girls" (the first single), "Black and Blue", and "Holiday in Spain" are all distinctively Counting Crows songs, fueled by the same multi-guitar layered rock vibe that is their stock in trade. And yet there's an openness to these songs that seems to make them breathe a little easier. Without being as claustrophobic as some of their prior material, it seems as though Duritz and company finally have room to move, and room to groove. But it's the little leaps in other directions that really stand out. The R&B flavors of "Good Time" give the song a soulful depth. "I Could Give" dives even deeper than usual into Counting Crows' own roots and evokes pure classic Southern rock. Duritz even throws a curve ball in the form of "New Frontier", which is about as '80s new wave as you could reasonably expect this guitar-rock band to get, literally coated in bent synthesizer notes. Then there's "Butterfly in Reverse", which revels in the fields of syrupy symphonic pop, a la the obligatory Burt Bacharach reference. And despite being subtitled 13 Fresh New Flavors, Hard Candy actually features a hidden 14th track -- a lovely, and upbeat cover of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi".
The album is also littered with guest appearances from roots-rock's all-star alumni. Hard Candy got it's first breath of impetus from Duritz's work with critical darling Ryan Adams, and Adams returns the favor here by co-writing and singing on the aforementioned "Butterfly in Reverse" (which is surely one of the album's true highlights). Matthew Sweet lends his pipes to "Hard Candy", as does Sheryl Crow to the single, "American Girls". The beautiful "Carriage" features trumpet work from Andre "Don" Carter, while the powerful "Black and Blue" is bolstered by backing vocals from Leona Naess. But a quick scan of the liner notes shows how much of Counting Crows is really Duritz's baby. Often the sole credit for both writing and music, this is as much about the man maturing and growing as a songwriter as it is about the quality of the band.
And the contributions and performances from the large cast that make up Counting Crows is, as per usual, at the top of their form. But they've always been a tight band, and it's really the development of Duritz's range and vision that Hard Candy makes obvious. In some ways it's a shame that this disc has to debut in a time when rock music, especially the roots-rock meant to appeal to adults, has been pushed aside to make room for youth authority. On the other hand, Duritz is finally comfortable in himself, and Counting Crows doesn't have to pander to market shares. And, for maybe just that reason, Hard Candy is all the better for it.