Wednesday, June 24, 2009

That's a Lot of Crows

A while back someone tagged me on a Facebook note called "My Life In Music", in which the author detailed the fifteen albums that changed his/her life. I wanted to try, realized I could never narrow it down to fifteen, so I dropped my half-written, over-populated list into a documents folder and didn't look at it again until the other day, when I saw it for what it truly was: Blog fodder.

So I'll throw one of these out there every now and then, to fill in the gaps, you know?

Counting Crows
August and Everything After

Counting Crows erupted onto the post-Nirvana music scene with Mr. Jones, an enigmatic up-tempo devotional to, well, some guy named Jones. It was fast, thought-provoking, imminently singable, and prompted me to purchase the entire album. Jones was shortly followed by 'Round Here, a low-key song about... well, I could never figure that out either.

At the tender age of thirteen, I found August to be rich with symbolism and oblique references to things I didn't understand. Everything was new and vague--and not just the music. I had never heard of a band having seven members before. Why was the song titled August and Everything After, whose lyrics appear on the cover art, not included in the album. Did someone make a mistake? Why is the phrase "counting crows" included in the lyrics (for those keeping score at home, the words show up in the second verse, I think, of A Murder of One)? Are you even allowed to do that? And what's with all the accordions?

Counting Crows' large line-up allowed for complex arrangements that managed to never be over-powering. It also meant that pianos and accordions were commonplace, but they never dominated. The album was more or less guitar driven... more or less. But much of the disc lilted rather than motored. It took detours, not roads. It made absolutely no sense to me, but I loved it anyway and played it and played it and played it.

Looking back, I get it. The lyrical toil of August is informed by messed-up relationships and the frailty of human emotion. Having been through a few messed-up relationships, it makes a lot more sense to me. It helps to think of Counting Crows songs as musical poems rather than pop tunes, especially those early ones. Since then the ebb and tide have become more even and more predictable--Hanginaround is good; it's fun, but it's not art. And don't even get me started on their covers of Big Yellow Taxi and Friend of the Devil. Buuhhh!

They never bested or even matched the quality of this disc, not in my opinion anyway. They developed a sheen and a niche, and that's all well and good, but the best things about August were the way it felt raw, experimental, and laid bare. Oh well.

But my biggest complaint about it, and about Counting Crows in general, is that Duritz was always changing lyrics from chorus to chorus. Seriously, choruses are supposed to be the easy-to-sing bits between verses. When they're constantly changing, suddenly you have a marathon of segments to remember the order of, and it make memorization a chore.

Highlights: everything on it is great, including the radio fare (Mr. Jones, Round Here, and Rain King), but my favorites were Anna Begins and Raining in Baltimore, which are both very, very sad songs, and I really dug A Murder of One, the upbeat closer.

Favorite lyric: "3,500 miles away, what would you change if you could?" (from Raining in Baltimore).

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