Monday, March 31, 2008

Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings - Counting Crows

Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings

Counting Crows
Geffen Records.

SCQ Rating: 89%
Wishlist Counterpoint: 79%

Objectively approaching a new album by the Counting Crows is hazardous, if not downright impossible, for me so let’s first do some editorial spring-cleaning. If you were one of the folk-rock purists who balked at the electric bitterness of Recovering the Satellites, sit this one out. If you considered the live, double-album Across A Wire a foolhardy move for a band with only two albums under their belt at the time, you weren’t listening in. If you, like most casual fans who remain hovering over and quoting August and Everything After, think Hard Candy was rubbish, feel free to stop reading. Maybe you’re one of those fans who’ve never heard of Hard Candy. Regardless, I’ve included this disclaimer because as someone who has been deeply affected by each of the four Counting Crows albums and had the good fortune to see them three times in concert, I know there is an army strong of faithful Crows-fans who understand this band on a far deeper level than their radio hits would suggest. This review is for those fans.

As if my personal relationship with this band wasn’t enough of a deterrent in neutrally assessing the merits of their new album, this is also their first set of new material in six years. Since I was barely twenty years old at the time of their last album’s release, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is, as far as I’m concerned, my first grown-up experience with the Crows. Luckily, no matter how much a half decade can change, it’s reassuring to hear that the band are as musically masterful as ever and that ringleader Adam Duritz remains the eternal mess of a man we’ve come to adore. Equal parts reminiscent of the aforementioned albums, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings has the restless growl of Recovering the Satellites, the polished harmonies of Hard Candy, plus the tranquil acoustics and conversational Duritz-isms of Across A Wire’s first disc.

Split by a sonic aesthetic (Saturday Nights being the aggressively electric, Sunday Mornings being the regretfully acoustic) and two producers (Gil Norton working the former, Brian Deck the latter), this album provides a welcome backlash to the Top 40 trap that the Crows were dangling above in recent years. It’s a bipolar concept that they’ve executed well although, in doing so, they’ve gift-wrapped a listening experience that finds each half swinging at the other, like two moods fighting for dominance.

One thing’s for sure: that Joni Mitchell cover couldn’t be further from memory when ‘1492’ comes thundering in to open Saturday Nights, the first mini-record that the band was recording before Duritz tired of the studio and underwent a lengthy period of personal turmoil. Although Saturday…’s mood is certainly self-destructive, Duritz’s vocal performances never hint at any imminent fatigue and as a whole, the Crows put all seven talents to hard work on Saturday Nights. ‘Los Angeles’ cuts deep like a lumbering blues song that, despite its attempts, cannot help but become a rowdy anthem of validated vices. Written with the help of Ryan Adams (which I can’t stop myself from smiling at; really, imagine how many albums Adams likely wrote while waiting for Duritz to finish one lyric), it’s the first in a string of new Counting Crows classics. ‘Sundays’ revisits the lovely production of Hard Candy, as a swooning crew of bells and vocals climax with Duritz belting “I don’t believe in Sundays / I don’t believe in anything at all,” while ‘Insignificant’ and the epic ‘Cowboys’ are ruthlessly energetic rockers that rival anything off Recovering the Satellites. When Saturday Nights burns out, there’s little doubt that fans are engaging with some of the best Counting Crows material in well over a decade.

Wherever ‘Washington Square’ is, I’d like to believe it’s close-by to ‘Sullivan Street’ as both give a nostalgic feeling of home and where our roots lie. Composed of lilting piano and descending acoustic guitar, ‘Washington Square’ opens Sunday Mornings with a stunning reason not to glance back longingly at the album’s first side. Focusing on the intimate side of their songwriting, Adam and Co. delve into less structured ballads; the harmonica-drenched ‘On Almost Any Sunday Morning’ is but a moment in regret, while ‘On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago’ is a lengthy swan-song on lone piano. Both are beautiful in their dramatic depression, and while the latter would be torture for any Crows-hater, it’s saved by Duritz’s ever-versatile voice that only gets stronger with age. Those two tracks, combined with ‘Le Ballet D’or’, a completely unhinged folk song, give Sunday Mornings a meandering feel that is confused further by the pop songs peppered in for good measure. While none of these songs are lackluster, their close proximity (as deemed by the record concept) has marginalized their uniqueness and given Sunday Mornings a slightly homogenous air. On the plus side, this group of quieter musings make lead single ‘You Can’t Count On Me’ even bolder, and the album’s second half is saved by the occasional presence of electric guitar or drum-kit.

Considering this new album in relation to the Counting Crows of old, I’ve stumbled across a small revelation: that, although the first two Counting Crows records are easily their most successful, I am far more passionate about their recent work (‘recent’ meaning from the past decade, I suppose). From the rustic country vistas in This Desert Life to Hard Candy’s bedroom pop-songs to this, a double album of urban debauchery and blue-skied recollection; the Counting Crows are a progressive band, true to their sound but unafraid to take chances. If that’s the Counting Crows you love, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is about to become your favourite record.

Listen to Counting Crows here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

fabulous review!! i couldn't have said it better myself!