Friday, April 13, 2012

Counting Crows Underwater Sunshine

Few successful bands rarely leave a major label for an independent. Counting Crows are among the few. After being firmly ensconced at Geffen for 18 years, beginning with their multi-platinum debut August and Everything After, they walked away and focused exclusively on touring.

Maybe that's what makes their latest endeavor somewhat unexpected. After skipping the studio for four years, they produced their first album since Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (2008). Even more peculiar, Underwater Sunshine is an album of covers.

Underwater Sunshine is a collection of mostly unrecognizable covers.

They aren’t instantly recognizable. In fact, some people will listen to the album without ever knowing about many of the original obscure versions (or equally obscure original artists) of many of these songs.

That's fine with singer/songwriter and front man Adam Duritz. He personally selected all 15 tracks for one reason. They are all songs he likes and wants to share with his friends and fans.

“There’s a million great songs written every day that you discover, and wish your friends could appreciate as much as you do,” said Duritz. “These songs come from bands young and old, stretching from the early 60s to last year. They’re all great and will hopefully be heard by a few more people now.”

While most bands release an album of covers to bide their time or meet a contractual obligation, that's not the case with Counting Crows. They did it because they can and because it helps the songwriters who might not have gotten the play they deserve.

“If you wonder why we didn’t just write our own records, it’s simply because we wanted to do this one,” said Duritz. “We now have the creative freedom to release albums like this.” 

The result is 15 tracks that are truly an eclectic mix of various styles and flavors. And some of them are better known than others, helping lift up the entire stack. But all of them have been played live by the band at one time or another, including this one by Kasey Anderson.

But that's what makes this unique. There is Bob Dylan alongside The Tender Mercies and Sordid Humor, bands that featured various Counting Crows before the band ever found itself in the spotlight. And, since they have played so many of the songs live, the production work sparkles despite the fact that they only stepped inside Ocean Studios in Burbank with producer Shawn Dealey for seven days.

Among the gems (because not all of them are), is Fairport Convention’s Meet On the Ledge, penned by Richard Thompson. Counting Crows infused some solid, soulful vocals, not unlike Fairport Convention in their heyday. It also features some nice guitar work by Dave Immergluck (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and Dan Vickrey (lead guitar).

Duritz and company also do a fine job with Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo written by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. The acoustic guitars and David Bryson's banjo keep the song honest, true to the original.

Even Pure Prairie League’s Amie, written by Craig Fuller, might have been covered a zillion times (and with good reason), but few have put as much affection into it as Counting Crows. It's nice to see the song covered here for posterity. Some might even say the addition of some mandolin and accordion give it an added lift that makes it almost as good as the original.

Rounding out the strongest songs is a cover of the Faces’ Ooh La La, written by Ronnie Lane and Ron Wood. The piano work and subtle drums keep the song firmly in drive without forcing it into overdrive.

If you want to discover more than that, it will be easy enough to find your own picks out of the 15. In fact, go ahead and skip the lightweight Start Again (Teenage Fanclub) and You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (a Bob Dylan tune recorded with the Band on Big Pink and also by The Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album). Sometimes too much is just too much.

Underwater Sunshine By Counting Crows Lights 4.3 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

No, this isn't a breakthrough album or gallant return. But it's not a cheat either. Duritz (vocals and piano), Bryson (guitar), Charlie Gillingham (accordion and keyboards), Vickrey (lead guitar), Immergluck (guitar, banjo, mandolin), Jim Bogios (drums), and Millard Powers (bass) have a lot more play in them than Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings suggested.

And what really makes some of the covers work is that Counting Crows isn't just trying to duplicate the originals. They’re paying homage to an impressive cast of songwriters, and rounding out what they can play on stage through May.

You can find Underwater Sunshine by Counting Crows on iTunes. The CD is available at Barnes & Noble. Amazon lists it under its full name: Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation). The band has also been linking up the original tracks to videos and sound clips when they can on their website.
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