The origins of the group lie in the coffee houses of San Francisco when Duritz and Bryson took their name for their duo from a variation on the superstitious nursery rhyme ‘Magpie’. Close friend David Immergluck participated in their early sessions before Matt Malley (guitar), Charlie Gillingham (keyboards) and Steve Bowman (drums) completed the early picture.
The debut album for Geffen Records, who beat off strong competition to secure the Crows signatures, is the extraordinary August and Everything After, was produced by T-Bone Burnett (Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, The Alpha Band, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant etc. etc.). Starting with the coffee bar days favourite “Round Here” this highly accomplished disc features strong guests like Jayhawks founders Gary Louris and Mark Olson and the great vocalist Maria McKee. Built on a foundation of classic Americana with an emotive alternative bedrock this is one of those albums whose durability is not in question thanks to famous songs like “Rain King”, “Omaha” and the surprise hit “Mr. Jones” which hit the top slot in the USA in the same week of Kurt Cobain’s death, an event that had a profound impact on Duritz’s writing and inspired him to compose the lovely “Catapult” which would kick off their second album, Recovering the Satellites.
In the meantime August and Everything After is recommended in the deluxe edition where six demos are teamed with a bonus selection recorded live in Paris in 1994 during a wildly successful European tour.
Recovering the Satellites was produced by Englishman Gil Norton and saw the arrival of new drummer Ben Mize and additional member Dan Vickrey, a fellow San Franciscan and a fine guitarist and songwriter. Typically eager to bare his soul Duritz might have confounded certain critics by now but his hold on an audience was assured. Key pieces are “Angels of the Silences” and “A Long December” (the video features Courtney Cox, a former Duritz date).
Across a Wire: Live in New York City is a double affair that assimilates the highlights to date before they return to California to make the downhome This Desert Life. Now adding strings courtesy of arranger and orchestrator David Campbell (Beck’s father) Counting Crows third studio album was a highlight of 1999 with “Hangin around”, “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” (inspired by the actress Monica Potter) and the sprawling “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream” filling an abundant canvas, aided by a smart production job courtesy of Cracker’s David Lowery and Throwing Muses confidante Dennis Herring.
A return to crisper, taut writing comes with 2002’s suitably named Hard Candy where you can hear echoes of The Band and the Byrds and will also find the ‘hidden’ track, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. The guitar playing is excellent on this disc with Vickrey and Immergluck excelling. Certainly look out for the bonus edition where they cover Dylan’s countrified “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”.
The compilation Films About Ghosts (The Best Of…) features material from all the above discs as well as unreleased gems like “She Don’t Want Nobody Near” and a reverential take on The Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil.” Wrapping up over a decade of success is the New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall February 4-6, 2003 where the Crows situate themselves at the margins of rock and draw themselves back in on the delightful “Richard Manuel Is Dead”, the Dutch hit “Holiday in Spain” (featuring Blof) and the bonus tracks including folk classic “Blues Run The Game” and a crackling version of “Mr. Jones”.
With increasingly evident echoes of country starting to infiltrate the sound again Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings – the addition of dobros, banjo and folkier melodies abound on the Sunday Mornings side – this 2008 album took Counting Crows back into the Top 3. With songs that reflect what Duritz referred to as his downward spiral this is an intensely personal set that has impressed many with its universal insights into loss and anguish.
After two independently released live albums and a studio album of cover songs the Crows return with Somewhere Under Wonderland, produced by their old friend Brian Deck, and written during a flurry of renewed activity on the summer tour of 2013. Thank heaven all the familiar Duritz tropes are here but there is a sense of a band that have aged up well on “Elvis Went to Hollywood” and “Palisades Park”. Musically they are at a new peak with Immergluck excelling on pedal steel guitar and mandolin and Charlie Gillingham’s array of keyboards adding lusher textures than most bands aspire to. The deluxe edition contains a couple of fine demos while the album is available in top quality vinyl. As a neat way of wrapping things up for now this album was recorded at Fantasy in Berkeley where it all began. Listen to them on top form during “Scarecrow” and if you chance upon the vinyl then enjoy the hardcover book that accompanies it.
Counting Crows are no ordinary group. They are ripe for rediscovery and for simple listening enjoyment. Start at the beginning and then …. everything after.
Words: Max Bell
Counting Crows were one of the biggest bands of the '90s and their brilliant first album August and Everything After one of the biggest-selling debuts in history. Here, the band, following the vogue of recent times, presents the album live in its entirety and original running order. The performance, recorded on September 18, 2007 at Town Hall in New York City, shows both what a great live show they are capable of putting on, and why the album’s timeless, rootsy songs are still beloved by so many.
Words: John D. Buchanan
For their second album, Recovering the Satellites, Counting Crows crafted a self-consciously challenging response to their unexpected success. Throughout the record, Adam Duritz contemplates his loss of privacy and sudden change of fortunes, among other angst-ridden subjects. In one sense, it's no different from the subjects that dominated August and Everything After, yet his outlook is lacking the muted joy that made "Mr. Jones" into a hit. Similarly, the music is slightly more somber, yet the approach is harder and more direct, which gives even the ballads a more affecting, visceral feel. Recovering the Satellites occasionally bogs down in its own pretentiousness -- for a roots rock band, the group certainly has a lot of artsy goals -- yet when they scale back their ambitions to simple folk-rock, such as on the single "A Long December," they are at their most articulate.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
It's likely that critics and listeners will consider Counting Crows' long-delayed third album, This Desert Life, another retro effort by a traditionalist band, but it's actually their most individual and finest album yet. All the familiar elements are in place, from Adam Duritz's impassioned vocals and cryptic lyrics to the jangling instrumentation, but the laments gel better than ever before. Part of it undoubtedly has to do with David Lowery and Dennis Herring's organic production, which keeps the rough edges in place, helping the music to breathe, but the real success of the record is due to the band themselves, who have matured gracefully. They may have spent a long time recording this album, but the music feels natural and immediate. Upon closer inspection, the craft really shines through. The songs are tight, with strong hooks on the choruses, and nice, memorable melody lines; the arrangements may be earthy, but they're never cluttered. Most importantly, Duritz has reigned in his tendency to overwrite and over-emote, turning in his best sets of songs to date. But the best thing about This Desert Life is that it holds together as a cohesive album while providing the best individual songs in the band's catalog. And that just doesn't mean the best singles, although "Hanginaround" is their finest uptempo number to date; the album tracks are consistently compelling, ranging from the winding narrative of "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" to the measured ballad "Speedway." These subtle differences -- the confident performances, cohesion, and assured songwriting -- add up Counting Crows' strongest album to date. They may still recall rock giants, but only in the best possible way -- by crafting an album that ebbs and flows like the best classic rock records.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Hard Candy is the sound of a band at a creative and poetic summit. Over three previous studio recordings, Counting Crows have moved through varied musical territories as a way of conveying emotion through performance, texture, and nuance, the place where the mood meets the heart meets the mind. Hard Candy is both a radical departure from the band's previous method of recording, and contextually an affirmation of what sets them apart from virtually every other band on the rock & roll scene: their commitment to songwriting as craft. These 13 tracks are strongly committed to conveying a song in the hook rather than in the lyric. They are tight, crisp, and razor-sharp pop songs on a bright, shiny, rock record. Every backing vocal, every lilting string, trumpet line, or piano run, was meticulously crafted and scripted into this invigorating musical architecture -- and lyrically, Adam Duritz offers at least as much as he's given on any other album. The set opens with the title track, a wide-open 4/4 rocker illustrated by shimmering piano lines and ringing Byrds-like 12-string electric guitars punching up the middle. Duritz sings with an Allen Ginsberg-like heroic candor: "On certain Sundays in November when the weather bothers me/I empty drawers of other summers/where my shadows used to be...You send your lover off to China and you wait for her to call/You put your girl up on a pedestal and you wait for her to fall/I put my summers back in a letter/All the regrets you can't forget are somehow pressed upon a picture in the face of such an ordinary girl." These lines reflect the entwined themes that run through virtually every song on the record: memory, the regret of loss due to ignorance, and pervasive loneliness in everyday life. Even the humorous songs here, such as the first single, "American Girls," offer candid meditations on these subjects. Other tracks, such as "Butterfly Reverse," co-written with Ryan Adams, offer stunningly textured instrumentation and wondrously pastoral pop melodies accented by a grand piano holding the middle against a huge wash of fawning strings and rim shots as the lyrics drip like dirty rainwater into a puddle in the middle of the street. Ultimately, this record, with its many seeming aberrations, will no doubt attract new fans without alienating the old. These 13 stories are as wondrously accessible in their sheeny glory, yet as moving and profound as anything pop music has to offer.
Words: Thom Jurek
Since 1993's chart-topper August and Everything After, Counting Crows' musical roots have been stuck deep in rock's past; they sounded out of time at the height of grunge and "alternative" rock. Not surprisingly, they still do. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is a concept offering divided into halves by title with two producers: Gil Norton on Saturday Nights and Brian Deck on Sunday Mornings. Frontman and chief songwriter Adam Duritz channels his characters on their loneliest night of the week -- Saturday. Driven to distraction by loneliness, they seek connection -- through anonymous, empty sex and intoxication -- but they remain out of reach. Obsessive, urgent drives and self-destructive rage fuel every song on this half. Dirty, kinetic guitars and rim shots blast "1492" out of the gate, offering Duritz a skinny plank and he walks into the heart of oblivion. A victim of Christopher Columbus is roaming lost through the New York of Hubert Selby, Jr. He wails at nervous passersby from dingy, piss-stained doorways and street corners: "I'm a Russian Jew American/Impersonating African Jamaican/I wanna be an Indian/I'm gonna be a cowboy in the end." His companions are champagne-drinking skinny girls; they go down on him amid "railway cars and tranny whores," with the "morning spreading out across the feathered thighs of angels." Atop the glorious din he tells a truth: "Where do we disappear?/Into the silence that surrounds us/And then drowns us in the end?" Duritz is unhinged and exposed, soaring above a band that underlines every vomited bleak poetic utterance. The brooding atmospheric opening in "Hanging Tree" reflects Duritz's false bravado: "I am a child of Fire/I am a lion/I have desires...This dizzy life of mine keeps hanging me up all the time...."
The second half is a reflective side-long update of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Comin' Down." "Washington Square" has hovering pianos, acoustic guitars, banjo, harmonica, upright bass, and brushed drums. It's a brief respite seeing drunkenly the opening of the coming day as a beautiful if desolate moment. But on the country roots ballad "On Almost Any Sunday Morning," it's been transformed into the gaping maw of a self-created hell: Jesus isn't in his soul's empty pit. The tenet of honesty that runs through these songs is informed by a sick, hungover dystopia, where dread becomes horror and feelings are bone-stripped to the marrow. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings' protagonists are lost in existential crisis; they blame vengeful gods, angels, enemies, and even friends, but they know the truth. They are dramatically textured and framed by basic, expertly crafted rock & roll. An example is "You Can't Count on Me." Its lithe piano lines and lushly woven balance of guitars let the protagonist confess he knows he's a creep without a hint of denial or parody -- Dan Vickrey and David Immerglück's guitars push Duritz to sing: "I watch all the same parades/As they pass by on the days you wish you'd stayed/But this pain gets me high/And I get off and you know why...So if you wanted to be free...You can't count on me." These deluded characters acutely feel the separation between individual and community, the Divine, and self-image. The musical framework for these confessions is a painterly, near-perfectly balanced roots-kissed American pop and rock. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is the other side of August and Everything After. The rocking final track, "Come Around," is a portrayal of the manic, love-starved kids from the debut who haven't grown up -- the price extracted for wasted time and broken relationships is: pervasive loneliness. Redemption lies not on some obscure horizon -- now knocking at the door -- but in facing a cracked and dirty mirror. Ultimately, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings doesn't despair, but comes dangerously close. The kids may not understand, but they don't have to. Brilliant.
Words: Thom Jurek
By the time of Somewhere Under Wonderland, it had been a long, rocky road between albums for alternative folk-rock superstars Counting Crows. Plenty of music had come and gone since 2008’s emotionally divided concept album Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings -- a few live albums, a record of covers, and countless shows on multiple tours. These recordings all fell short of presenting that much in the way of new original music from the band, possibly due in part to the turbulent years that followed Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, an album that would be their last for long-time label Geffen and immediately precede a stretch of personal loss and struggle for Crows singer/songwriter Adam Duritz. Despite a long period of upheaval and heavy changes, the nine songs that make up Somewhere Under Wonderland find the band sounding relaxed, optimistic, and even somewhat giddy at times. The record eases into being with the eight-minute long first single “Palisades Park,” a suite that glides through different atmospheres, lingering with the same dreamlike fluidity and colorful observational storytelling that Joni Mitchell displayed on The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The lengthy tune breezes by, shifting through Beatles-esqe organ tones, tempo changes, and Duritz’s signature characters and poetic scenes. The largely acoustic “Earthquake Driver” sounds stuck somewhere between Thin Lizzy's energetic juvenilia and Paul Simon's soul-searching wordplay circa Graceland. The band doesn’t stick with one mood for too long over the course of the album, offering Neil Young-inspired guitar rootsiness on standout track “Scarecrow,” gentle acoustic meandering and folksy vocal harmonies on “God of Ocean Tides,” and an upbeat country-rock ramble on “Cover Up the Sun.” All these stylistic detours fall under a very wide umbrella that makes Somewhere Under Wonderland distinctively Counting Crows. Duritz's raspy voice and lucid, lyrical stories always hold just a hint of desperation, and even decades into a staggered career, these new tunes can’t help but feel like part of a larger narrative that began during the band’s '90s glory days but finds further, greater refinement here.
Words: Fred Thomas
It certainly says something about the state of the music industry in the '90s when it has become a common occurrence for bands to release live albums after only two albums of original material. On one hand, it's indicative of how the labels have to fight the proliferation of high-quality live CD bootlegs. On the other, it illustrates that the labels have a difficult time receiving new product from their major bands. And that makes the Counting Crows' double-disc set Across a Wire: Live in New York both welcome and odd. Certainly, all of the group's hardcore fans will delight in having two complete live shows on one specially priced double-disc set, but skeptics can't help but wonder if a double-live set is necessary. Actually, Across a Wire may be necessary if you are a dedicated fan, simply because it showcases the group's versatility in a way that neither of their albums have. Although those two records were eclectic, accomplished recordings, these live shows find Counting Crows rearranging familiar tunes and performing cohesive conceptual concerts. The first disc consists of their performance for VH1's Storytellers, the second of MTV Live from the 10 Spot. They share some songs, such as "Angels of the Silences" and "Rain King," yet the versions themselves are different, fitting neatly into the concerts themselves. The end result is two fascinating, entertaining concerts in one package -- a small blessing for the committed, even if it won't be of much interest to the unconverted.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Why is it the opening notes on "Rain King" from the Counting Crows' New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall sound so elegiac, so utterly lost and sad? When this song was first released on August and Everything After, it sounded like
an anthem. Here Adam Duritz sounds tired, lost, and perhaps even afraid, and he lets it be known in the grain of his voice that that's exactly what was going on. While the band roars to life on "Richard Manuel Is Dead," Duritz lets out the words "I've been walking in the dark/But now I'm standin' on the lawn" like he's singing from someplace so deep inside himself, it's as if the band (bassist Matt Malley was still a member then) has disappeared behind him. It's the only moment where this happens, but it's so significant because it's obvious that he's out on some ledge hoping and praying for rescue that may be available but he can't see it, and he wants to enter the world so bad you can almost taste the desperation. This live record is official, but it feels warts-and-all like a special kind of bootleg. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It doesn't feel complacent in any way, but it does feel lost in the melancholic fog, full of tension and an over-the-line subtlety that makes you feel as if you're witnessing a train wreck. Bob Clearmountain's mix is solid because it takes nothing away from the feel of near implosion. They barely hold it together here, though the band's playing is nearly flawless technically. These fellows are holding their singer up. The stories about this are many, but New Amsterdam is the audio evidence.
The content comes from across their catalog, except for "Hazy," composed by Duritz and Gemma Hayes, but it was, according to his blog, completely improvised on the spot. The brokenness in this solo cut is so desperate you almost feel embarrassed to be so close to hearing it as it happens. It's a marker; these 14 songs come across not so much as a final will and testament, but the sound of a band, and a frontman, at some crossroads where everything that counted is gone, and there's something's coming that isn't clear. It's followed by the wah wah fuzzed-out guitar the Counting Crows play like it's all at risk, but as if they've gained and lost plenty. "Perfect Blue Buildings" punches holes in the night sky with Duritz bringing the band out there with him in facing the void. There is a struggle happening. While the chords and melodies are familiar, there is something so anxious here that you may grit your teeth. It's only on "Hangingaround" where he rises above the murk and lets everybody remember he's a rock & roll singer. If you're a fan, this is the kind of inner vision you long for; if you're someone wondering what the fuss has been about since the '90s, this will be appalling evidence. If you are a train spotter seeking dissolution and desperation, Live at Heineken Music Hall will fulfill your vampiric thirst for blood. But Duritz is no Nick Drake -- these songs go to war against the darkness even when being immersed in it. He's always pushing, from inside the song itself, to break out into the world around him and for the band to push him harder! This set, as strange and beguiling as it is, is flawed and fitting testament to the Counting Crows' continued trudge out there on the margins of rock & roll. They've never fit anywhere, and listening to this, it becomes obvious why.
Words: Thom Jurek