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Listening to: Counting Crows, August and Everything After

Counting Crows August and Everything After

I want to be Bob Dylan | Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky | When everybody loves you, son | That’s just about as funky as you can be

Is there anybody who listened to rock music in 1993/94 who doesn’t remember those words?

If there were a top ten records of all time list on Teabowl, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After would probably be on it. (Well, there are so many discs that I would deem worthy of a place that it might get bumped on and off every so often – but this is a CD I’ve played and loved, over and over again. If CDs had grooves to wear out, I’d be on my 5th copy.)

It’s a rare album that achieves so many things, so elegantly, in such a short time: it’s immensely listenable, with big, bright, soaring choruses; at the same time, it’s lyrically very complex and goes to more dark places than any single record really should. It competently channels many influences, from Van Morrison to John Mellencamp to REM, without ever just ‘borrowing’ thoughtlessly or mimicking ineffectively.

One of the secrets of this album is its sequencing – from the chiming opening guitar on “Round Here,” a mid-tempo exposé of small-town reality (or maybe the existence of inmates in a psychiatric hospital; I’m still not completely sure); to “Omaha,” a Celtic/country-inflected masterpiece of obscure but deeply resonant lyrics; to “Mr. Jones,” both a fabulous up-tempo party song and somehow melancholy, searching and deeply desperate at the same time. On to my personal favourite, “Perfect Blue Buildings.” If good poetry keeps you guessing then there’s lots of great poetry here:

Asleep in perfect blue buildings | Beside the green apple sea | Gonna get me a little oblivion | Try to keep myself away from me

Well, maybe that’s about as precise and to the point as lyrics can be – there are dark places everywhere, and most of them are right here in your own head. On to “Anna Begins.” And if I hadn’t already called “Perfect Blue Buildings” my favourite, this would have to be it. A love song about a ‘complicated’ relationship, its lyrics are beautiful in the insights they offer through small changes of perspective as the song rolls on. I love these two verses, musically the same and lyrically a powerful juxtaposition:

This time when kindness falls like rain | It washes her away | And Anna begins to change her mind | “These seconds when I’m shaking leave me shuddering for days,” she says | And I’m not ready for this sort of thing

The time when kindness falls like rain | It washes me away | And Anna begins to change my mind | And every time she sneezes I believe it’s love and | Oh lord, I’m not ready for this sort of thing

Adam Duritz’s songcraft is flawless on much of this album, and near-flawless on the remainder. His lyrics often channel writers like Dylan or Springsteen (Dylan in the precise approximations, Springsteen in the ‘story song’ approach). His singing more often than not reminds me of Van Morrison – there’s a ‘white soul’ element here that works beautifully for this material.

The band plays powerful ‘acoustic rock’ (in a way, I’ve always felt this album heralded, or accurately reflected, the “MTV Unplugged” sound that more plugged-in artists would employ at their unplugged concerts). For all its musical drama, the band is also incredibly restrained throughout, tastefully underscoring and foregrounding Adam’s lyrics and vocals. We have to assume that some of this is because of T-Bone Burnett’s masterful production – not only does this record sound lovely, particularly in the 2007 remastered deluxe edition, but the playing is first-rate throughout.

It’s commonly lamented that Counting Crows never scaled the same heights again after this record: their subsequent CDs have been competent but not necessarily outstanding albums. (They’ve just released a new one that I haven’t heard yet – it’s gotten very positive reviews, so I’m cautiously excited about it.)

But, quite frankly, if they had never made another record, August and Everything After would still stand as a towering achievement. It got me through many melancholy and sad days in the 90s. And drab days at the office. And all kinds of other situations. There were times when it didn’t leave my CD player for days.

(There are two thoughtful reviews that I wanted to mention here: The BBC discusses how this album has held up (very well). Uncut shares that opinion and offers some fun quotes from Adam Duritz about recording it. And Adam has an interesting blog here.)

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