Counting Crows

Underwater Sunshine

Written by: CM on 02/05/2012 19:59:34

I always enjoy when an artist reinvents another performer's song, either in live performance or as a b-side, bonus track, or soundtrack contribution, but really, do full-length cover records ever work? Whether it's a question of poor song selections, the artist not making the song their own, the artist doing TOO much to make the song their own, or just the fact that there are some songs out there that simply should not be re-done, cover albums are the single trend in the musical world that have pretty much universally disappointed me. All that said, if I had to pick a single band that I thought could perfect the art of the cover album, '90s alt-rock veterans Counting Crows would certainly be high on the list of nominees. Frontman Adam Duritz has always exuded a geek-level obsession and respect for music of all genres, and has been toying with the idea of making an album of covers for at least a decade now. The result, "Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation)" is not only my favorite covers collection of all time, but one of the finest records of the year, and, though not quite among the band's best work, a more than welcome addition to their legacy

Duritz and company have had an interesting history, from the days of their (utterly fantastic) debut, "August and Everything After," which spawned the single "Mr. Jones" and rocketed them to superstardom, to their rebellion against fame on the follow-up, 1996's "Recovering the Satellites," to their renowned and emotional live show, where the band tends to re-invent their own songs with astounding regularity. They were also probably my first "favorite band," and their records, when I re-discovered them about eight summers ago, launched me into a musical obsession that I've carried around with me and nurtured ever since. But the last decade was not the best time for the Crows, seeing only two releases from them (2002's gloriously poppy "Hard Candy" and 2008's lukewarm, split-personality LP "Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings"), and Duritz's increasingly difficult struggles with a dissociative disorder that left him feeling alone and depressed after nearly every show the band played. Since the Crows wrapped up their last tour in 2010, Duritz has even gone on record saying that he may never write another song. Naturally, it was the perfect time for the band to attempt the covers album idea that they'd been tossing around for so long, and "Underwater Sunshine" was born.

One of the most fascinating things about this record is how unfamiliar most of these songs really are. There's a cover of "You Ain't Going Nowhere," written by The Byrds and popularized by Bob Dylan, who has been one of the band's biggest idols all along, but beyond that, most of these songs are gems that many listeners will never have heard before, and that gives the band a liberating freedom to make them completely their own. Of course, they do just that: from my first listen, whether I was listening to Duritz belt out the line, "throw your arms around my neck," from opener "Untitled (Love Song)" or the nostalgic B3-organ flourishes on Dawes' "All My Failures," this collection sounded like it could have been written by the Crows themselves, circa 1998. A lot of these songs have been making appearances in live sets for years now (like the incredibly loose take on Gram Parsons' "Return of the Grievous Angel," which kicks the album into its final leg, or the gorgeous alt-country sweep of "Four White Stallions" that follows), or have even been recorded as b-sides in the past (I stumbled upon a studio version of "Start Again," with the same sunny harmonies and keyboard licks, almost a decade ago). Across the board, these songs have a live and organic feel to them, and that atmosphere, combined with the Crows' customary layer of studio sheen, makes for a magnetic and involving listen.

But even for a die-hard Counting Crows fan such as myself, there are plenty of musical discoveries to be made here and plenty of nuances to explore. Undoubtedly, the band plays mostly in the comfort zone, picking songs that work very well within their wheelhouse, and taking few actual "risks," but I actually think that's a good thing for a covers record. That the band never resorts to gimmicky song choices or to the kind of ironic pop-music covers that have become customary in the Youtube and American Idol age, is testament to their love for music and their respect for the artists that have chosen to cover here. And it doesn't matter whether they're paying tribute to more established acts, like Dylan or Big Star, or tackling artists who fall into the realm of the obscure (like Coby Brown on the tumultuous "Hospital," or Kasey Anderson & The Honkies on the entrancing "Like Teenage Gravity," which is arguably the album's biggest triumph), because no matter what song they're performing, they do so with incredible musical skill, innate emotional connection, and palpable energy that begs to be witnessed in live format. It's not just that there isn't a bad song on "Underwater Sunshine," it's that the band makes each of them sound like an instant classic of their own devising, sequencing them into an album of perfect length, flow, and personal impact, and transforming them into a something that fits perfectly into their own body of work; clearly, Adam Duritz has made more than a few mixtapes in his time, but this is one that deserves to be played on repeat…well, at least until he decides to write another album.

Download: "Untitled (Love Song)," "Start Again," "Like Teenage Gravity," "Four White Stallions"
For The Fans Of: Past Counting Crows, any of the artists covered here, Van Morrison, The Band

Release Date 10.04.2012
Collective Sounds

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