I have been a middling Counting Crows fan: put off by singer Adrian Duritz’s self-importance but drawn in by some great songs and a harder edge than most such self-consciously arty rockers. Although they have only had four studio albums, it’s time for the inevitable greatest hits package, typically cryptic in its title: Film About Ghosts, The Best Of Counting Crows.
Boiled down to the essentials, the Crows do have an impressive body of work: “Angels of the Silences,” from the second album, ’96’s Recovering the Satellites, rocks with undeniable momentum – especially the slashing, well-nigh vicious guitars of Dan Vickrey and David Bryson – and I like Duritz’s straining rock voice better than his aching-poet bleat.
“Round Here,” from the band’s multi-platinum ’93 debut August and Everything After, is exactly what I don’t like about the band: pretentious, slightly paranoid, with great lines like “She has trouble acting normal when she’s nervous” buried among the overwrought, melodramatic and oblique. And worst of all, it just kind of drags.
But then, balancing out the ick and then some, comes a true classic like “Rain King” (from August): uptempo with an alterna-folk-rock earthiness and a totally killer chorus, though still wildly impressionistic and overly “poetic” (“I think of flying down into a sea of/pens and feathers and all other/instruments of faith and sex and God/in the belly of a black-winged bird” – sure you do, bud – did you drink the bongwater?) it just goes to prove that a great rollicking tune can overcome most any kind of nonsense and even make it sound, sort of, profound.
“A Long December” (from Counting) sounds like the Band at their Big Pink stately best – Duritz sings like he cares more about the song than calling attention to himself and Charilie Gillingham’s accordion make lines like “The smell of hospitals in winter/And the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters/but no pearls” sound timeless rather than arch.
The third album, The Desert Life, from ’99, is well-represented by “Hangingaround,” a jaunty, jolly radio hit (with an irresistable walking guitar figure) about wasting time, but also about longevity, and it was a wink in the direction of their fans that the band wasn’t going anywhere.
And then there is “Mr. Jones,” which I think I liked the first time I heard it, but I can’t remember because by the time it achieved icon status, that repeating four-chord pattern induced Pavlovian antiperistalsis in this lab rat. Though the story is good and who doesn’t want to be beautiful and loved?, the song’s cleverness turned on itself very quickly for me. At least this time I didn’t puke when I heard it – it’s good to know these things wear off.
Sorry, not buying their version of “Big Yellow Taxi” (from ’02’s Hard Candy) which loses both the sweetness of Joni Mitchell’s melody and the sprightliness of her rhythm to become just another environmental harangue. Their cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” recorded last year, sadly doesn’t work either.
Reaching all the way back to their demo days of 1991 for “Einstein On the Beach,” the band’s strengths are again assembled: uptempo alterna-folk-rock with a good thumping backbeat, memorable melody, vivd imagery. The newly recorded “She Don’t Want Nobody Near” isn’t as good, but isn’t bad either.
So there you have it: a mixed bag but the good stuff is really good. Note ongoing guitar contest above – guitars are good, click over to enter the contest and to hear the entire flipping album for free. Cool.