The latest Counting Crows album suffers from Goldilocks Syndrome — parts of it are too hard, parts are too soft and the rest is just about right. The concept here was that the record’s first half represents the “Saturday nights,” with hard-rocking and much mayhem, while the rest calls to mind “Sunday mornings,” and the gentler comedowns they provide. The idea would have worked better over two discs, but presented as one album of fourteen songs it seems less like a high concept than a purposeless and jarring shift in tone.
That said, there is a lot to like here. Once I got past the uncharacteristic noisiness of the early tracks, I was able to appreciate the songcraft. In fact, I favor the album’s first a half a bit more than the sleepier second half, where the melodies are a bit harder to pick out. Measured against the Crows’ four other albums, I see this one toward the bottom, battling it out with Recovering the Satellites for last place. But that’s more a testament to how exceptional I find the other three. This is a keeper, just not up to the standards of their best work.
How many times did you listen to this album before determining it would battle it out for the Crows’ worst album yet? As I listen to these songs day after day for the past two months since you posted this blog, I have made this observation: These songs are unique. While there is no mistaking the voice of Adam Duritz, the songs themselves are unlike anything the group has created before. The result? It’s not easy to get a grasp on them at first. Thus my question. How many times did you listen to each song before sending Saturday Nights to the bottom of the heap? Because the more I listen, the more I’m certain this album is a contender for one of the top spots in their discography. “Sundays,” “Washington Square,” “When I Dream of Michelangelo,” and “Come Around” are all new favorites, which I would put against my favorite tracks on their earlier albums (do I sense another contest coming on?). I don’t think I’ve heard this album, or these individual songs, enough to make a final determination about where they “rank,” but I’m certain you hadn’t when you published this blog. So I’m throwing it back to you, Clay. What do you think of the album, and the specific songs I mentioned, on June 4th (assuming you’ve listened to them at all over the past two months)?
To answer the first question, my rule of thumb is to give an album at least four full listens before reviewing it on the blog. I usually know by then whether it’s something I’ll return to again and again or not. Yes, some albums take even longer to get a foothold, but not many.
As I wrote in my review, I do find many of the songs on SNASM worthy, but as a cohesive whole I just don’t find that it measures up to their other work (with the exception of Recovering the Satellites). I really don’t like the ‘split down the middle’ approach… I would probably put several songs from each half of this album on a Counting Crows compilation tape, but I think they made a big mistake in the sequencing.
I do like the songs you mention, and several others, but for my money they don’t come close to ‘Anna Begins,’ ‘Miami,’ ‘Up All Night,’ ‘Mrs. Potters’ Lullaby,’ ‘Omaha,’ “Monkey’ and other favorites. That, plus the uneven nature of the album’s sequencing, is what keeps it at the bottom of my Counting Crows list (though, as I wrote above, that has as much to do with the sustained excellence of the other three albums as anything else).
What I find fascinating, and probably would upset Duritz in this particular case, is how much the digital revolution undercuts the whole notion of an album’s sequence. I honestly would have no idea in what sequence the songs are intended to be heard if not for looking it up on Amazon. When I listen to music on my iPod, I’m listening to Hallelujah by Jason Castro, followed by Rehabe by Amy Winehouse, Stella Hurts by Elvis, then Sundays by Counting Crows. I’ll skip a song if it’s not a song I feel like listening to at that moment (or if the kids are in the car, and it’s not appropriate for their tender ears 🙂 Otherwise, the sequence is determined by the digital gods (who, as we have discussed in the past, seem to have some pattern in mind). Other than a hunch, I didn’t even know which songs were Saturday night songs and which were Sunday morning songs; many are obvious, but a few are less so. The end result is that I have weighed each song on its own merits rather than as a part of a concept album. Perhaps that is unfair, and a concept album is clearly what the band was after. Still, I can’t help but assume they listen to music much the same way we do, and they, too, would know that the songs are unlikely to be listened to in that order. Regardless, with few exceptions (such as the REM albums I wore deeper grooves into during the Gainesville years and Graceland), I couldn’t tell you much about the sequence of any album I own. I just know what songs I like. And there are a bunch of songs on this new Counting Crows album that I like. A lot.
That is an interesting thought. I’m one of the holdouts who still listens to albums in their entirety, start to finish. I love albums that flow well and that make a complete statement (whether as part of a concept or not).
To me, listening to random songs is a bit like watching random scenes from movies.
I suspect that, in this digital age, Adam Duritz and crew sequenced the album as they did very deliberately. By splitting the album into “sides” and giving the album a title that stressed the division, they are asking us to consume it as a whole. Ironically, it’s this extra attention to the concept of this concept album that hurts it for me.
Do you not listen to playlists? You were the original creator (well, I’m sure not the original original, but you know what I mean) of the mix tape. I fell in love with so many songs you introduced to me through those tapes, yet I had no context for the songs. Half the time I didn’t even know the name of the artist or the title of the song (when it was less than intuitive). I rarely ever listen to an “album” anymore; when I’m in the mood for an artist, I’ll play a random assortment of songs in that artist’s collection.
As for the movie analogy, I don’t think it’s a fair one in most cases. While there may be some albums that are such high concept endeavors that to get a full appreciation of any one song or the album as an entirety, one must listen to the songs in order, the vast majority of albums are more comparable to a collection of short stories. Pick up a book, shuffle through the table of contents, decide which story suits your mood and time constraints, then read it. The short story stands on its own; most songs do the same. That’s not to suggest a book of short stories or an album won’t reward a straight read/listen, just that it isn’t necessary to fully appreciate the excerpted work. So many short stories are published in anthologies. Songs are regularly selected for music compilations (Sounds of the 60’s, Beach Music, etc.) I, therefore, believe that songs are intended to be listened to in isolation as often as they are intended to be listened to as a part of a larger whole.
Back to my original question, Mr. Holdout: How often have you listened to the album (since you, apparently, won’t listen to any individual songs without listening to the entire album) in the past two months since you reviewed it? With all that Duffy and Robyn music vying for your time and attention, I’d imagine not often 🙂
I should rephrase, and clarify, that movie analogy. What I mean to say is that I think reviewing an album based on selected songs is like reviewing a movie based on selected scenes. When reviewing an album, it is necessary (I believe) to take into account how it works as an album.
I certainly enjoy listening to a variety of individual songs, and experimenting with how they sound mashed up against each other. But the mix tape itself is an album of sorts, and my love of mix tapes is just an extension of my love and appreciation of albums.
As I wrote, I would certainly include some of these songs on a “Best of Counting Crows” mix tape. But you asked why I rank the album itself below its predecessors.
I’ve listened to the album maybe four or five more times in full since writing my review, and I’ve listened to some of the individual songs a couple times (including after reading your first comment here).
My children are claiming starvation, so I will reflect on these thoughts while feeding them, then return recharged with my response 🙂
Okay, I’m back. While driving to Einstein’s, Target and home, I took the opportunity to take Clay’s challenge. In fact, I entreated Madison and Daniel to join me (which was the quickest way to quiet their clamoring for Kelly Clarkson and Syesha Mercado:-)).
I admit I hadn’t listened to the album in sequence since my first shuffle through, where I listened to 45 seconds to 1 minute of each song just to get the gist of each one. Since it was difficult to address Clay’s criticism of the album, or his belief that an album should be reviewed “as an album,” without listening to this album in that way, I decided to do just that.
Deep into the Sunday morning “side,” I am ready to claim this among their best albums yet. I can’t get over how seamlessly each songs flows into the next or how powerfully Saturday Night’s Cowboys seques into Sunday Morning’s Washington Square. This may be the most complex, sophisticated and thoughtful work by Adam Duritz yet, and that’s saying something.
Now whether repeated listens of the songs in sequence dulls this initial effect remains to be seen, though I find it highly doubtful. Since I do have a strong familiarity with most of the individual songs having listened to them out of sequence for the past few months, I feel, if anything, my appreciation is likely to grow even more. While I am still far more likely to listen to the songs individually as they pop up on various play lists, I do agree with Clay that the mood Duritz creates on this album is most richly rewarded by listening to them in the order they were presented.
Once again, however, I will make my initial point, which caused me to revisit a blog written two months ago in the first place. These songs are unique. The fact that Duritz has not simply repeated “Anna Begins,” “Round Here,” “Omaha,” and the rest makes them less immediately accessible. Therefore, I encourage you to put Duffy, Robyn and the rest, on the back burner. Pop this CD back into the car and give it a fresh listen. I can’t imagine you won’t find it creeping closer to August and Everything After than hovering down next to Recovering the Satellites.
I agree that these song are unlike much of what Duritz and Company have put out before, though I feel the same way about Hard Candy and This Desert Life. They have stretched on every album.
That said, there are moments on the second half of this album that remind me a lot of ‘Colorblind’ or some of the other slow piano ballads they’ve done (in a good way). They do have a signature style that runs through all their work, even when exploring new avenues.
I’m glad you got even more enjoyment out of the album by listening to it as just that, an album. But I have to disagree with you about how effective it is. I, too, like the transition from ‘Cowboys’ to ‘Washington Square,’ but only because I find the former song quite annoying and am glad to be done with it and on to better things. This is the only Crows album on which I sometimes skip songs (the aforementioned ‘Cowboys’ as well as the opener, ‘1492’ ) and that is reason enough for me to rank it below my favorites, which are (in order) Hard Candy, August and Everything After and This Desert Life.
I will give it another listen soon. It is in my car rotation, though I just got the new Aimee Mann album so that will monopolize my CD player for awhile.
I agree that 1492 and Cowboys are two of the least accessible songs on the album; however, I also believe that was very much the intention of Duritz and company. They are, after all, the bookends of the Saturday Nights section of the album. While I’m not much of a fan of 1492 (or, if you prefer, 1942 ;-)), I find Cowboys to be a very ambitious and complex song, which rewards multiple listens. It’s musically interesting, lyrically poetic and provocative, and serves as a poignant closer to this group of songs. Once you get past your Mann fixation and give the Crows another listen, you should give this song another chance. It certainly is grating background music, but I think you’ll find it rewards careful listening.
I will certainly give the whole thing a careful listen, though I doubt it will ever rise to the level of my favorites.
Another reason for that (and this might be fodder for a blog entry all by itself) is that some albums have special meaning not just because of the music but because of the time and place you discover them. August and Everything after, for example, is one of three or four albums that are forever intertwined in my memory with the first months Alex and I were dating. Hard Candy came out a couple weeks after Sophia was born and we would listen to it while driving back and forth to Target for baby supplies.
I find that some of my favorite albums not only please my ear but throw me immediately back into a time and place in my memory. Other albums (like this one) don’t have that luxury.
Well, if you’d start listening to it in regular rotation, rather than having to contantly find the latest greatest newest British babe to blog about ;-), then perhaps it would become associated with the summer of ’08, when your daughters were 2 and nearly 6, your candidate for President had made history by becoming the first African American to become a major party’s nominee, and your sister had created her first blog yet was spending more of her time commenting on yours 🙂
It truly is all a matter of perspective, now isn’t it?
Now don’t give me crap about seeking out new music… it’s what I do. We wouldn’t have Ben Folds, Fountains of Wayne, Fiona Apple, etc. to kick around if I wasn’t out there investigating. Or hell, maybe even Counting Crows (I forget who “discovered” them).
I remember teaching at ECC in Fort Myers and being a big fan of Counting Crows. Then one of my students (who worked at a record store)introduced me to Dave Matthews, saying that if I liked Counting Crows I was sure to like DM as well. I don’t honestly remember who “discovered” them. Suddenly the video for “Mr. Jones” was all over VH1, and I remember falling in love with the song instantly (and trying to figure it out if the loft was in San Francisco).