The Crows' Covers Albums Is A Breezy Blast From The Past
Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Since the mid-’90s, the Berkeley-based band Counting Crows has established itself as a force to be reckoned with, an alternative band with popular appeal. The band, led by lead singer and songwriter Adam Duritz, is equally comfortable with simple, catchy pop-rock songs (“Hanginaround,” “Accidentally in Love”) and more complex, folky material (“Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” “A Long December”). While Counting Crows’ popularity has waned, the band continues to soldier on with its new release Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation). As that title suggests, the new album has a tossed-off, casual quality—in fact, it’s a covers album, perhaps intended to tide fans over until the band’s next batch of original material. While Underwater Sunshine is unlikely to gain Counting Crows any new converts, it is an enjoyable trip that showcases the band members’ musical abilities while paying tribute to the musicians and songs that have inspired them.
One of the reasons Underwater Sunshine works is that the songs chosen are not too familiar. There are no standards here—for the most part, the band chooses songs by semi-obscure contemporaries like Coby Brown and the Scottish band Teenage Fanclub, along with some older, forgotten groups like The Faces and Pure Prairie League. The relative obscurity of the material allows Counting Crows’ treatments of the songs to stand on their own merits, without comparison to the original versions. As a result, the album feels like an authentic Counting Crows album and not merely a dutiful homage.
In fact, there’s nothing dutiful about this release: it plays like an impromptu jam session, with the band trying its hand at a bunch of its favorite songs. The best tracks on Underwater Sunshine have an appealingly laid back feeling: from the up-tempo country tune “Amie” to the catchy “Ooh La La,” which features members of the band strumming on multiple guitars and trading off vocal solos. These two tracks are examples of the album’s country flavor. Country as a genre seems dominant here, and Duritz’s voice at times carries a slight Southern twang. However, there is some variety: “Coming Around,” a song written by the Scottish band Travis, has high vocals and harmonies that recall the Beach Boys, while “Hospital”—a cover of an unreleased Coby Brown demo—has a jittery, distressed quality brought on by a harsh electric guitar that cuts in intermittently. “Hospital” is also one of the few tracks that carries an evident personal meaning: the band recorded it while Duritz was recovering from an addiction to prescription medications, so its tale of sickness and suffering takes on a special charge.
But most of the songs here don’t explore such dark territory. They are instead breezy and pleasant, and that’s both the blessing and curse of the album. It’s clear that the band has a lot of fun tearing through catchy, campfire sing-along kinds of songs, whether it’s “Ooh La La” or the playful, jaunty Bob Dylan song “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” But on some level, the album’s songs tend to blur together into an agreeable but not always memorable haze. The album has 15 songs, and is altogether too long to sustain the mood. There are real gems scattered throughout Underwater Sunshine, but there are also a number of songs that—while not complete duds—are somewhat forgettable and so get lost in the shuffle.
Still, Underwater Sunshine is a reminder of Counting Crows’ musical strengths. The band is equally adept at playing quiet acoustic numbers as it is rollicking rock songs. There is a real energy to these songs, and Duritz’s impassioned, inspired vocal deliveries sell them each time. In short, the band never sounds like it’s going through the motions, even when it is. Overall, Underwater Sunshine is a thoroughly enjoyable album, but it’s also a bit inconsequential in the scope of the band’s career. If this is what Counting Crows did over its summer vacation, then here’s hoping what the band does next will be even more worthwhile.