A review by Michael Webb
The author and cultural critic Steve Almond once noted on the podcast “Never Not Funny” that “no one’s taste is defensible.” Musical groups that very intelligent people love beyond reason, like Chicago, Kiss, Dave Matthews, and Cheap Trick, evoke yawns from me, whereas groups that I adore, like Billy Joel, Metallica, or the Counting Crows, can provoke some non fans to rage and calls for mandatory imprisonment. This seems like an iron law of human culture. As soon as there are things to care about, we start gathering around us the like minded, and pointing and laughing at those other people, the deluded ones that don’t follow our lead.
After forming in the early 1990s and having a massive hit with “Mr.Jones,” singer Adam Duritz and his group have continued in essentially the same folk rockish vein, producing a mere 6 studio albums and numerous live collections while touring regularly over the next two decades. They have covered Dylan and the Dead and Joni Mitchell and Gram Parsons without becoming a folk band, they have dropped verses from other artists into their own songs without becoming a jam band, and they have placed songs on animated movie soundtracks without becoming caricatures.
When asked to describe the new record, their seventh of original material, to a friend, I told her it was “more songs about sad girls and lonely boys”. While reductive, that is a pretty good description of the group’s work as a whole. Duritz’ protagonists, like Billy Joel’s, never seem to get what they want, or if they do, they find it is more complicated than they thought or not as satisfying as they had hoped. This is either exactly the way you experience every second of your life, or exasperatingly whiny, pretentious and annoying. Your mileage may vary.
The album opens with “Palisades Park”, a fine, pretty number that reminds you of early Bruce Springsteen, and closes with “Possibility Days”, a gentle story of leaving someone at the airport when you wish you didn’t have to go. The record as a whole, only 9 tracks long, is slightly more uptempo and raucous than previous efforts, but certainly nothing that would even make an AC/DC B side. There is a wistful look back at the so called golden age (“Elvis Went To Hollywood”), blues rock travelogues (“Cover Up The Sun”, “John Appleseed’s Lament”, “God of Ocean Tides”) and songs about being misunderstood (“Dislocation”). Duritz cleverly drops in references to Andy Warhol and Jackie O, making it seem like he wishes he were recording in 1974, but his lyrics are still insightful and wise in 2014.
Or perhaps they aren’t. I can understand the argument that Duritz is a poser, dating celebrities by day and cranking out overwrought bad poetry for sensitive artist types who wear black and wish it rained all the time by night. Perhaps he falls asleep on a pile of money, awash in prostitutes and cocaine, laughing at the sorts of rubes who believe he actually once cared about girls on rooftops thinking about jumping. It seems unlikely, but it’s possible. I never met the man.
All I know is listening to a Counting Crows album, from the debut right up to the new release, makes me feel a little less lonely, a little more like I’m not the only one who wonders about strangers and wishes there was less pain and fewer tears. That may not be art, and it may not make the Counting Crows into rock titans like Led Zeppelin or the Beatles. But it’s good enough for me.
“Somewhere Under Wonderland” is available now wherever music is sold.