Factoring in varying degrees of dedication, I've been a Counting Crows supporter from the beginning. Furthermore, in my many conversations and readings about music, I've never run into anyone willing to completely dismiss the band. In fact, the worst I've heard is that they're frustrating in concert because lead singer Adam Duritz constantly changes his phrasing and makes it impossible to sing along.
So it was somewhat surprising to read the recent Rolling Stone interview with Duritz in which he lamented the poor reputation of his band. "For some reason, everyone decided we were a piece of shit," he claims. I don't doubt that he's heard his share of heckling and naysayers, probably directed toward his emotional delivery and sometimes overworked lyrics, but this seems an exaggeration.
The ironic thing is that the Crows' new album - depicted in the article as a response to his detractors - features several songs that clearly spotlight Duritz's worst tendencies as a writer and performer. It's also the most wildly diverse thing they've done, closest akin to Recovering The Satellites, their dark and inconsistent sophomore effort.
Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is broken into two "sides." The Saturday Nights side is generally more rocking, with production by Foo Fighters / Pixies man Gil Norton. It starts strong with the speedy and seedy 1492. The song has a sense of self-awareness and danger that few would associate with the Counting Crows. It's anchored by a strong chorus and a crackerjack band performance throughout.
Hanging Tree has a little more room to breathe and a mile-wide chorus, but the loose atmosphere and wailing guitars seem indicative of a sea change. Are we looking at the new, improved, won't-take-your-shit Counting Crows?
Not so fast.
Los Angeles is the first of those aforementioned "worst tendencies" songs. It's perfect fodder for haters. Self-pity? Check. Complaining about being a celebrity? Check. Whining about a city you choose to live in? Check. On the plus side, the band works up an appealing country lope.
Sundays falls into the same boo-hoo category with Duritz repeatedly reminding us, "I don't believe in anything." However, Insignificant and Cowboys are enjoyable enough, with some good lines and crisp instrumentation.
Things start to go really wrong with the Sunday Mornings side, which was produced by Brian Deck. You remember, of course, when Duritz said he wanted "to be Bob Dylan" on Mr. Jones? Well, he's finally gives it a real college try on the second half of this record, and it doesn't go so well. Of the last 8 songs, 4 are meandering, boring and self-indulgent. They reach for depth but fall short. Ballet D'Or actually features the line "I would be lying if I didn't tell you the truth." Really.
You Can't Count On Me, Anyone But You and When I Dream Of Michelangelo are not part of that frightful 4, but each is just barely redeemed, by an appealing chorus, harmony, and guitar picking respectively. In fact, the only truly great song on side two is the final one, Come Around. Gil Norton produced this one, wrecking the two-sides-two-producers conceit. Perhaps the band realized, smartly, that they needed to end the album strong. At any rate, Come Around calls to mind the Crows of old, and, dare I say it, might have fit well on August And Everything After.
So what conclusion can we draw? Ultimately, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, like the band that made it, cannot be dismissed outright. It features some genuinely thrilling and lovely moments and showcases the strength and versatility of the undersung band behind Duritz. However, the album won't go down as one of their best, at least not on my list.
I have no doubt that this is a very personal record for Adam Duritz, and that he put his heart into all of his songs. And perhaps he made the healthy decision to confront his detractors by ignoring their complaints and doing what pleases him. But when a fan like me has trouble with some of the results, it's clear that a little bit of self-reining-in is never a bad thing.
Fave song: Come Around