5/26/2008

A return to form for Counting Crows.

Back in the early to mid 90s when their first two albums came out, I was really into Counting Crows. I thought their first album, "August and Everything After", was somewhat inconsistent, but the good songs were great. Then their second album, "Recovering The Satellites", took things to a new level, and was pretty great all the way through. I was most excited about the song "Angels Of The Silences", an upbeat, anthemic tune with heartfelt lyrics that wouldn't have sounded out of place on some of the more rock-based emo albums I was listening to a lot of at the time. There weren't any other songs on the album that sounded like it, which was somewhat of a shame, but with awesome slower, more dramatic tracks like "Another Horsedreamer's Blues" and "Goodnight Elizabeth", as well as some nice pensive midtempo songs like "Daylight Fading" and "Have You Seen Me Lately", I couldn't really complain. I played that album a lot, filing it mentally in the same space that held Buffalo Tom and the early Uncle Tupelo albums.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill for the Crows after that. "This Desert Life", which came out in 1999, was inconsistent to a greater extent than "August And Everything After" had been, and even the best songs on it weren't in the same league as "Angels Of The Silences" or "Another Horsedreamer's Blues". "Hard Candy", from 2002, was even less engaging--I barely liked anything on it. And then they didn't release anything for six years. I figured that, even if they ever came back and made more albums, they were still finished as an interesting creative entity. I felt this was a pity, especially since they'd never written anything else like "Angels Of The Silences". If it was a feat that could never be repeated, then so be it, but I personally would have loved an album with half-a-dozen songs like that one on it, and it was sad to think that it would never come.

"Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings" came out in March of this year, and all of the reviews I read were so surprisingly laudatory that I had to check it out. People seemed just as surprised as I was that Counting Crows had gotten their shit together to make another album, and even moreso that it was one of the better things they'd ever done. It made me very curious, and before long, I downloaded the album. But for whatever reason, I took a couple of months to listen to it, and only finally played it for the first time two days ago.

What I heard blew me away, starting from the very beginning. The album is divided into two sections; "Saturday Nights", which is the first 6 songs and is produced by former Pixies producer Gil Norton, and "Sunday Mornings", the last 8 songs, which are produced by a guy named Brian Deck. I guess if anything they are more like two EPs pushed together into a full-length than one unified album, and I think this is a big part of what keeps the album from true greatness (for, make no mistake, it's flawed). But it starts with "1492", which comes barrelling in on the back of a frantic snare roll that turns into the exact sort of uptempo, rocking verse that the Crows have previously only done once--on "Angels Of The Silences". As soon as the verse kicks in, Adam Duritz starts singing, and he's singing about himself in a less than flattering way: "I'm a Russian Jew American impersonating African, Jamaican", he starts, and before long, he's saying, "I guess I bought a gun because it impresses all the little girls I see and they all wanna sleep with me." That could sound cocky or full of himself if it weren't for how disgusted by the whole thing he sounds. It's obvious that this verse is there to make fun of himself at his cockier moments, rather than to embody such a thing. And then, when the chorus comes sliding in on a touch of minor-chord melody, it adds the perfect note of melancholy, as Duritz plaintively asks, "Where did we disappear into the silence that surrounds us and then drowns us in the end? Where these people who impersonate our friends say come again, and again, and again." He's obviously feeling a good bit of ambivalence about being famous. But the band doesn't give him time to think, pulling him into the second verse, where "skinny girls who drink champagne... take me on their knees again." From here, Duritz and co. go flying through another chorus into a fiery, impassioned guitar solo the likes of which has rarely been seen on a Counting Crows record. Then into a third verse where Duritz, who has sang the rest of the song in a relatively calm tone, finally gets excited enough to start raising his voice and practically screams the last lines of this verse: "I'm the king of everything, I'm the king of nothing." It seems obvious that he means these two opposing lines to represent a surface appearance of having everything, and all of the emptiness that lies underneath. "1492" is a blazing song throughout, and matches up with the intensity of "Angels Of The Silences" both lyrically and musically--the first time Counting Crows have ever done such a thing.

And amazingly enough, it's not even the only song on "Saturday Nights" that does this. After four albums in which the closest they ever came to duplicating the feat they achieved with "Angels Of The Silences" (the closest they came, if you ask me, is "August And Everything After"s "A Murder Of One", which predates "Angels" and can if anything be seen as a prelude to what they were going to do on that song), they manage to do so not once but twice on their fifth album. Once is with "1492", the song that begins the "Saturday Nights" portion of the album, and the other is with the song that ends that section, "Cowboys". This song is pretty much the longest track on the album (actually, "Anyone But You", from the "Sunday Mornings" section, is one second longer, but who's counting), and uses its 5 and a half minute length to stretch into a driving epic that locks into a theme early on and never lets go of it. Unlike "1492", which is a rocker through and through, "Cowboys" has quieter sections interspersed throughout. The thing that makes it spiritually akin to "Angels Of The Silences" despite having a lot less of an obvious resemblance than does "1492" is its constantly driving tempo. Sometimes it's only the drummer tapping a stick against the rim of a drum that keeps things moving along at such a frenetic clip, while at other times the entire band is locked in together and wailing, but always things are kept moving and flowing forward in the sort of driving motion that has rarely been heard in any Counting Crows song.

The lyrics to "Cowboys" seem much less autobiographical than those of "1492", telling the sort of story that Adam Duritz has set to music in the past. Longtime Counting Crows fans will see resonances in lyrics like "If I was a hungry man with a gun in my hand and some promises to keep who wanted to change the world, what's as easy as murder?" Yes, this has points where it seems like some sort of murder ballad, but it's nothing as simple as that. There are points where I feel like it's a song about politics and frustration with same, heavily shrouded in metaphor; for example, "The President's in bed tonight but he can't get to sleep, because all the cowboys on the radio are killers," but some of the political references are actually in service of a completely different metaphorical situation. "She says she doesn't love me, like... like she's acting, but it's as if she isn't talking, because Mr. Lincoln's head is bleeding, all over the front row while she's speaking." This is a pretty interesting use of a presidential-assassination reference; as almost a side note, just to emphasize the central point about the girl in question's self-conscious melodramatics not getting the attention she wants it to generate, because all around her more important things are happening. And by the way, I love the way Duritz stumbles over the word "like" in that line. He sounds rattled, in a way that's perfect for the rest of the song. The unifying tone of the rushed, frantic musical backing on this track is unease, discomfort. I'm not sure what the whole thing is really about, but I definitely get the vibe throughout that Duritz is pleading, trying to find some sort of relief for everything in his life that's making him feel so fucked up. In the end, the lyrics are more a catalog of disturbances than a coherent narrative, and the thing that brings it all together is the chorus: "This is a list of what I should have been, but I'm not. This is a list of the things that I should have seen, but I'm not seeing." The third line of the chorus changes every time, as does part of the fourth, but the last line always ends "I am not anything." This is most affecting at the end of the song, as Duritz pleads with someone, "Won't you look at me? Because I'm not seeing you look at me. And I will make you look at me, or I am not anything." This seems like a pretty obvious reference to his own craving for attention, for the spotlight, which is apparently something he's struggled with over the course of his time as a famous person. After all, we all know that Adam Duritz spent some time dating Hollywood starlets. But these days, according to an article I read recently, he has a girlfriend who isn't famous at all, whom he met through friends who also aren't famous. I think there's definitely some re-evaluation that went on during the six-year hiatus from recording that Counting Crows took, and I think we're seeing some of the results come out in Duritz's lyrics this time around.

I've spent a lot of time on two songs from this album, and they're by far the two that have affected me the most, but none of that is to say that the rest of the songs aren't good in their own ways. We don't get any more "Angels Of The Silences" successors, but honestly, two is enough at this point to make me feel pretty good. And there are some other really great songs on this record; for example, "Hanging Tree", the second track on the album, brings back that whole midtempo Buffalo Tom vibe that songs like "Daylight Fading" created in the past, and does so well. "Los Angeles" is a bit silly, especially at the end where Duritz starts babbling in a carnival-barker voice about finding "some skinny girls and going streetwalking!" It's obviously a joke, and when combined with the more serious lyrics, seems to make a more serious underlying point: that the life of a celebrity in Los Angeles might make one feel awesome in the short term, but underneath it's all really empty. As I mentioned before, this is a pretty prevalent theme in Duritz's lyrics on this album. The slower, folkier "Sundays" features catchy verses and a surprising and affecting pensive minor-chord melody on the choruses that add depth to an otherwise slight song.

You'll notice that so far I've only talked about tracks from the "Saturday Nights" side of the album. This is not by accident. Honestly, I think "Sunday Mornings" suffers from being separated from the "Saturday Nights" tracks. The closest that section comes to an upbeat track is the final song, "Come Around", which does a great job of ending the album and is one of my favorite songs here. However, between "Cowboys" and "Come Around" are 7 songs, all of which are slow, quiet, acoustic tunes. Some of them are great--"Washington Square", for example, or "You Can't Count On Me"--while others would probably sound better if there were more uptempo tunes mixed in, instead of leaving them floating in a morass of soundalike slow songs that start to draaaaag after a while. But as it is, I definitely want to edit a few of these tracks out when I listen to the album all the way through. "Le Ballet Dor" and "On A Tuesday In Amsterdam Long Ago" are the two biggest offenders to my mind, but this may be because they are the last two tracks before "Come Around". Really, the problem is not with any individual track. The problem is with 7 quiet acoustic songs in a row ("Come Around" being the only electrically-based "Sunday Mornings" song). It's just too much of a quiet moody thing, and especially after the uptempo triumphs of the "Saturday Nights" side, it's hard to keep from zoning out or wanting to just start the whole album over and listen to "1492" again. I feel like I'd have a much easier time appreciating the gems here (which do sound pretty good when listened to on their own) if they weren't all back to back to back.

In the end, though, I can't deny that this is the best Counting Crows album since "Recovering The Satellites". I haven't wanted to own one of their records since that album, which was over a decade ago, but I'm actually seriously considering purchasing "Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings." I don't think that's a purchase I'd regret. Hopefully, they'll keep it together going forward from here, and make some other really good albums, but I guess we'll have to see.

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