Monday, August 4, 2014

In Defense Of: Counting Crows

Today's In Defense Of was contributed by Jason Lawrence, a Brooklyn-based drummer who wishes he was someone just a little more funky.

“But I just don't think you want to end up where that's all you get out of your life and you don't have no sense of yourself and no one who cares about you and no one you care about. If your dreams come true and you can't find a way to live with it, you are the biggest fuckin' loser on earth. And I have been the biggest fuckin' loser on earth. I mean, I dreamed a dream that is impossible and I got it.” — Adam Duritz in Rolling Stone, 2012

We all have secrets — bands or albums in our past that meant something to us, but that we keep hidden, or that we occasionally open up about in an eye-rolling, “I was such an idiot” kind of way. If you listened to Counting Crows before, say, 1999, you should resist the urge to make them one of those secrets.

If you listened to any of their stuff after, say, their third studio record, that’s on you, but before that it’s just not embarrassing. If you never really did listen to them, but you think of them as one of those bullshit bands that everyone loved for a little while and then grew up and realized how dumb they were, you’re not getting the whole story.

And maybe you never will — listening to their old records for the first time now would probably be like watching The NeverEnding Story or The Dark Crystal for the first time as an adult. You missed it, and you’ll never see it in the context of its time — but don’t talk shit about how messed up the puppets look compared to today’s technology. Save that judgment for Dave Matthews Band (although, I’d love to see someone step up and write a defense of the ol’ DMB) or Hootie and the Blowfish (an even bigger challenge to defend!). Don’t let Counting Crows’ later transgressions affect your opinion of their early stuff, and don’t accept that there was never any reason to have liked them in the first place.

When you think back on Counting Crows now you can’t avoid the song that they wrote for Shrek 2, or the already dangerously melodramatic piano ballad “Colorblind” that turned up in Cruel Intentions, that horribly ham-fisted teen movie adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses where Ryan Phillippe pouted, Reese Witherspoon pouted, and Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair made out. That was quite a drop from having the end credits song in Rounders, but it was nothing compared to Counting Crows’ most egregious act. When their fourth album, 2002's Hard Candy, failed to yield a major single (“American Girls” going mostly unnoticed, maybe because it was on the radio around the same time as Lenny Kravitz’s cover of “American Woman”), someone had the idea to release their hidden-track cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” as a single.

But they thought they’d spice it up a bit. I can imagine the conversation going something like this: “I know! How about we have the one-hit-wonder, It-girl-of-this-very-instant Vanessa Carlton go into a studio and overdub some scatty oohs and mmbops onto the recording. It’ll take half a day at the most, and what I'm going to now dub the 'Vanessa Carlton bump' will get a bunch of pre-teen girls interested in Counting Crows. Victory is ours.” Needless to say, Counting Crows’ careers as major rock stars slowly faded away with the 90s. But those were obvious acts of desperation from a band that was falling out of the mainstream. Is it so surprising that a band that got famous from “Mr. Jones”, a single about wanting stardom, would do anything to try to hold on to their fame? The irony is that their attempts to maintain popularity probably hastened their decline more than anything.

But that was later. In the mid-90s, Counting Crows were too huge to ignore, especially if you were of high school age. You either heard Adam Duritz’s voice and believed he was belting out the truth, or you thought he was a whiny, melodramatic douchebag. You either saw Duritz awkwardly bouncing his little dreadlocks (remember when he had little dreadlocks?), and you found some hope in the fact that this guy, who is kind of a dork, put himself out there and ended up a star, dating through the cast of Friends on his way up to bigger movie stars — or you couldn’t fucking believe that this dork was screwing the cast of Friends and a bunch of movie stars while you couldn’t even get a homecoming date. “Mr. Jones” struck me favorably at the impressionable age of 13 or 14; it was upbeat, catchy, and across multiple listens you might be stumbling through the barrio or listening to Flamenco guitar, all the while staring at beautiful women.

The whole album — their 1993 debut August and Everything After — was a massive hit, and for good reason. The thing is absolutely full of hooks. There isn’t a song on the record that you couldn’t find yourself singing after hearing it somewhere. Sure, some people will point to silly lyrical choices, like “I felt so symbolic yesterday” or “Her kindness bangs a gong”, but Duritz is singing for the whole record except a minute or two, and every word is easily understandable — you’re going to question some of the lines. “Round Here” was one of the stronger album openers of its time, and is probably a strong album opener, period. The slow organ swell and bright guitar arpeggio that begin the song sound like the sun just starting to come up. The lyrics “Step out the front door like a ghost” and “Maria came from Nashville with a suitcase in her hand” begin a story, introduce a recurring character, and set a mood that carries through the whole record. Each instrument enters separately, the band is solid, the arrangement is tight, and the song slowly builds all the way to the end. This continues right into “Omaha”, which has perhaps the catchiest chorus on the album. Then “Mr. Jones”, and the hits just kept coming, as even the deep cuts have great moments. The bridge of “Time and Time Again”, where the organ takes over and the band lays into a rhythmic figure while Duritz howls “So when are you coming home…” over a group of female backup singers is pop gold. The piano ballad “Raining in Baltimore” is more refined and subdued than similar efforts on later albums. And honestly, if you couldn’t understand how Duritz was getting the girls back in the 90s, look no further than the triumphant album closer “A Murder of One”. You can imagine he stole some girlfriends with lines like “Does he tell you when your sorry / Does he tell you when you’re wrong”, “You can look outside your window / He doesn’t have to know”, and “You don’t want to waste your life? Change.” Douchey? Maybe, but somehow justified in that song. Check out the live version on Across a Wire where Duritz essentially shouts at the audience for six minutes. Whatever you think of the music, the guy can create a moment.

Furthermore, the lyrics and the sentiments of the best Counting Crows songs are a sort of time capsule for early relationships and the feeling of not knowing what to do with your life. I can listen to “Anna Begins” and be brought back to my first girlfriend’s room, where I’m identifying with the line “Maybe I should pin her down on a photograph album” or pretending to grapple with the fact that “Oh lord, I’m not ready for this sort of thing”. The idea that the album, and the band, is heavily associated with my teenage years, rather than being timeless, could easily be taken as negative. At the same time, I don’t hear Live’s “Lightning Crashes” or other popular songs of the mid 90s and get the same effect; I just cringe. August is filled with themes of being stuck in a place, of wanting to be important to somebody and to everybody, of not wanting to waste your life. It’s quite a coherent album. And Duritz had the character of the tortured, sleepless “Rain King” lying in bed dreaming of great artists fully realized from the very beginning. If there's a problem, it's that the subsequent Crows albums were filled with the same sentiments, and that character never really developed. Certainly the band’s later decline and grasps for attention made it easier to dismiss Duritz’s persona as a farce. Perhaps Duritz never emotionally grew up past his college years, or maybe to him that persona and those emotions were as closely associated with the band as the music itself.

You certainly can’t dismiss him as some acoustic guitar dude that wanted to be famous and got lucky. Duritz is a devotee of music, and he has good taste, as you’d want and expect from any of your musical heroes. Duritz told us “I want to be Bob Dylan.” It was right there in the first hit anyone ever heard by Counting Crows: go listen to Bob Dylan. And if you can’t hear Van Morrison in the sha-la-la-la-la-la-las and other Duritz vocalizations, then time to go listen to him, too. Counting Crows used to play Magical Mystery Tour before coming out on stage in concert, and Duritz talked publicly about taking Kind of Blue with him everywhere he went. So, go listen to the Beatles and Miles Davis. Look: Duritz is becoming a pretty good source for classic pop, rock, and jazz. In interviews as recent as 2012, he referenced Carole King’s classic record Tapestry and The Band, and he mentioned drawing inspiration from REM’s Chronic Town EP. I remember back in the day hearing that Rob Thomas said he wanted to be as honest as Duritz in his song-writing. I remember hearing Darius Rucker say that he listened to the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels” over and over and knew he had to write a song like that, so he wrote “Let Her Cry”. Those guys were drawing inspiration from the pop world around them with no sense of history. I’m not saying Counting Crows are good because they’re better than Matchbox 20 and Hootie, but they are better than those bands, and those are some of the bands that were extremely popular back when Counting Crows were popular and with which they might draw unfair associations.


Funkadelic, T. Rex, Dead Boys...wait, what?

Incidentally, I never knew until I started writing this that T-Bone Burnett produced August and Everything After, but it fits with his meticulousness. It makes you wonder how much T-Bone was responsible for all the hooks being more fleshed out and central to the songs than they were on later albums. But while the Crows were rarely as catchy later as they were on August, they made more records worth hearing. With years of touring experience and a new drummer, they had undeniably improved the way they played together by 1996’s Recovering the Satellites, which had more of a live and rocking sound. The differences are most obvious in the drumming and the presence of electric and lead guitar. Steve Bowman’s slick high-hat work, highly tuned toms, punchy kick drum, and bright cymbals sound pretty Nashville on August. Ben Mize took over on Satellites and fit the overall band sound much better. His playing is driving and forceful, yet interesting and grooving, especially on songs like “Catapult”, “Angels of the Silences”, and “Children in Bloom". The electric guitars gave the band a chance to create some musical hooks that were absent on the first record; but more importantly they gave them another level or two dynamically to support Duritz. On August, the band provided adequate support, but Duritz really defined the dynamic shifts with his voice. You can hear in the last minute of “Round Here” or “Perfect Blue Buildings” that Duritz is really going for it, and the band doesn’t have that next gear to shift into behind him. When he’s shouting at the end of “Catapult”, Mize is pounding the cymbals, and electric guitars are blaring.

In hindsight, it might have been telling that “A Long December” was by far the biggest hit on the Satellites, because it sounded the most like it could have fit on August. In general, the music industry — and let's face it, music fans — want something similar from a band after their breakout album, and often throughout their career. The fact that the band wrote and arranged their third album This Desert Life all together in the studio could have been applauded as ambitious, but may have derailed them. Though there were no standout singles, some of the songs clearly could not have been written in any other way. “High Life” is a stranger song than anyone would’ve expected from Counting Crows, and “Amy Hit the Atmosphere” is a clinic in tasteful yet interesting playing behind a singer/songwriter. Even “Hanginaround” and “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” were obviously conceived from the energy of playing together in the studio. “Mrs. Potter”, by the way, is clearly an attempt at a song like Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”. Importantly, Desert Life is their best sounding record, and it has their most fleshed out arrangements with sparse, yet emphatic playing, and tasteful use of strings and orchestral instruments. But the record's middling reviews likely assured that no one would hear the direction they might have gone had their experimentation been encouraged. I’m not arguing they would’ve done something brilliant, but I’m saying they wouldn’t have gone back to the safe, generic pop-rock that brought their lowest point.

Given the progress in their playing from the first record to the second and second to third, it’s not surprising that the strongest defense of Counting Crows is their live show. I saw them when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, not long after August had come out, and I remember feeling annoyed that Duritz didn't sing the chorus of “Mr. Jones” the way I'd heard it on the record. As I grew as a musician, however, I changed my mind and realized that it was cool for a live performance of a song to be something different, and not just a replication of the recording. That’s where the Miles Davis jazz influence comes out. When performing live, Duritz sings like he’s a jazz soloist, playing with the melody, improvising, or extending sections within the framework of a song. He impacts the energy and dynamics of all the other musicians — a challenge that I’m sure helped further their progress as a band. Obviously it’s not an original thing for rock or pop bands to improvise, or significantly change song arrangements live, but it seems to be in fairly short supply these days. Lately, when I like a rock or pop show, or when I hear about someone putting on a great show, it's often the light show, or the choreographed dance moves, or the sheer number of people on stage, or the faces the drummer made, or the fact that they reproduced all the sounds on the record. A truly authoritative and inventive lead singer isn’t something to sneeze at. Counting Crows have released several live shows while only putting out a couple of studio albums in the last decade: maybe they’ve learned to play to their strengths.

You can tell from the quote at the top that even Adam Duritz is aware that his band and career haven’t gone exactly how he might have wanted. Despite what I think most people take from the song, “Mr. Jones” was obviously sarcastic. Duritz's attitude toward music, developed in interviews and live sets, shows that he was clearly aware of the falsehood of the statement “when everybody loves you, you can never be lonely.” At the height of his popularity, instead of singing the sha-la-la-las, Duritz would intro “Mr. Jones” by singing the first few lines of The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” a cynical look at the hype surrounding pop music at the time. Yet he couldn’t resist the pitfalls of stardom. But that doesn’t change the music he and Counting Crows made in the 90s.

Whether or not you have any interest in dusting off the old catalog and reliving some of your high school moments, or whether you feel like actually getting out to a show to see if they’re live performances still hold up, there’s no shame in having fallen for Counting Crows for a few years. And if you were never a fan, give Adam Duritz a break. Maybe even check out what he’s been listening to, it might surprise you.

– Jason Lawrence 

2 comments:

  1. I'm a Counting Crows fan, but I do agree with you that "Hard Candy" was kind of a low point (although I don't think you can write off "Holiday in Spain").

    Concerning "Colorblind", I'd point out that it wasn't written for _Cruel Intentions_. It predates the movie. So I don't consider it the same kind of deal as "Accidentally in Love".

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks a lot for commenting! The best part of writing the article was anticipating the discussion (beyond the great email discussions I had with Jon while it was in progress).
    I agree with you that there were a few nice moments on "Hard Candy". I like "Good Time", and I think the "Richard Manuel" song is ok.
    "Holiday in Spain" is catchy and has a nice melody, but it sounds like an attempt to recreate "A Long December", which supports my theory that they were desperately trying to get back into the mainstream at that point in their career. It's a Duritz piano ballad, and it highlights the fact that his song-writing hadn't progressed much (if at all) since "Raining in Baltimore", which was written probably 10 or more years earlier.
    Also, for anyone that was annoyed by Adam's lyrics on the first record or two, I give you "Hop on my choo choo, I'll be your engine driver in a bunny suit. Dress me up in pink and white, we may be just a little fuzzy 'bout it later tonight." We may be just a little fuzzy 'bout it later tonight? Is that correct? I listened like three times.
    I know that "Colorblind" was not written for "Cruel Intentions"--I don't think that "Baby I'm a Big Star Now" was written specifically for "Rounders" either--my point was that the association of having the song play during one of the most melodramatic scenes of that terrible movie didn't help. I liked "Colorblind" back in the day, and wanted to like it more than I did. It felt like they played up the emotion of the song more than was actually there, which made it melodramatic. Listen to the first syllable of the word "coffee" in the first verse. That's too much. And I can't separate the song from an image of Ryan Phillipe on an escalator (or whatever was going on in the movie), so it's ruined for me.
    I agree that it wasn't as bad as "Accidentally in Love", but it was a step in the wrong direction.
    Thanks again for commenting! I think people should talk more in the comments of this website.

    ReplyDelete