Wistfully looking back at 1993, the year I graduated high school, there were so many memories (many of them a mixture of good and despicable), but one thing that always sweeps me right back to that place and time is the sounds of the Counting Crows and their masterfully orchestrated debut album, August and Everything After. “Mr. Jones” was an incredible smash hit, unleashing the Crows on a listening audience completely unprepared for such an original, authentic and honest sound. My personal favorite track from that album is “Omaha”, but the debate over the ranking of those tracks will wait for another time.
Twenty-one years and five albums later, the band is back to remind us not only of times gone by, but of emotions still meant to be felt in the here and now.
Somewhere Under Wonderland is a toe-tapping, juke joint of a rock and roll record. It’s more aggressive musically than their original fare, but with a strong country twang that runs through it. It’s like the whole band picked up and moved south and this is the audio travel logs. Their harmonies and melodies are familiar while still pushing their boundaries to show growth, but it’s Adam Duritz’s voice that is the heart, soul and utter pain at the center of the band. No one sings like him: past, present or future.
The album opens with “Palisades Park”, which lulls the listener underneath the big top of a traveling show by way of an incredibly long opening – the full song is 8:21 to be exact. It sets the mood for many of the tracks to come, like “Earthquake Driver”, “Elvis Went to Hollywood” and “Scarecrow”. That last track has a rhythm so infectious it is impossible to stop it from reaching your fingertips and toes.
The heaviest track is “Dislocation” which bounces back and forth between quiet isolated lyrics and rock and roll bar band choruses. Duritz shows his age here, but not in a bad way. Their early material yearned from a place of youthful longing and loss, but songs like this bring the sound of someone whose been through it all, looking back at his lost youth.
“God of Ocean Tides” (best song title I’ve heard in years) and “Cover Up the Sun” unveil the most countrified side of the Counting Crows, including banjo! “A Prayer for Johnny Appleseed” sounds like it would fall into the country twang as well, but it’s closer to the tone of their earlier album, Recovering the Satellites, with lyrics like this:
Everybody loves you when you hit the ground
A wistful reminder that as much as the crowd likes a success story, they crave the fall from grace.
My standout favorite of the album is actually the last original song, “Possibility Days”. This is the sad and scratchy voice and pain I remember connecting to all those years ago. While placed at the end, this is the softly beating heart of the whole record. It almost broke me upon first listen and there’s no guarantee it won’t during the next time around. It’s worth the wait to get to the end of the album.
Tacked on the deluxe edition are two demos for “Earthquake Driver” and “Scarecrow” for a little more stripped down versions of those tracks. Personally, I dug these even more than the studio versions, but that’s just me.
Somewhere Under Wonderland is a welcome return to a band I truly relished for many years and am glad to hear once again.
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