Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) By Counting Crows
Counting Crows just released their sixth album in twenty years, and their first with indie label Cooking Vinyl, to what have been fairly mixed but generally unenthusiastic reviews.
If you’ve ever heard a Counting Crows song – and by this I mean not the sugary-pop “Accidentally in Love” flop from the Shrek 2 soundtrack – you probably know that their forte is the lyrics, which, for lack of a better term, are very, um, lyrical. So what can Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), an album composed entirely of cover songs spanning from the 1960s through the present day, possibly add to the band’s repertoire?
The answer is: a few neat (but not spectacular) takes on old classics and some of lead-singer Adam Duritz’s personal favorites. Truth be told, the Crows are pretty good at what they do (read: poetry belted to mellow rock tunes), but they don’t quite possess enough breadth or versatility to make these borrowed songs new or fresh. They’re simply… Crowified.
But perhaps the problem lies in this listener’s expectations. This is, after all, the group’s first effort with a new label and, thus, a fresh start of sorts – and in some poetic Durtiz-esque way, there’s probably nothing fresher than rehashing veteran tracks. The vocalist himself said of the album: "Sometimes it's great to play someone else's music and try to make it your own. Sometimes it's great just because it's fun."
And fun, which is not exactly an adjective typically associated with the Counting Crows, is in fact a fairly accurate description of this unexpected medley. If nothing else, these fifteen tracks are decidedly more upbeat and positive than the band’s usual introspective lull. “Meet on the Ledge,” one of the most winning titles on the compilation, channels a summer-is-here, sing-along mood, while the cover of The Faces’ “Ooh La La” grazes good ole country territory thanks to Adam’s coarser vocals and the acoustic backdrop. Conversely, “Amie” keeps its original country sound, while Duritz opts for a crisper contemporary voice that makes the track more interesting and digestible than it ever was at the hands of Pure Prairie League.
“Hospital” and “All My Failures” are resurrected and energized by sporadic electric riffs and thespian organ surges, respectively. “Untitled Love Song” eases in with a plain electric guitar, followed by vocals, another guitar, drums, and eventually piano, animating the original and rather flimsy title thanks to a successful group effort. Another title that benefits from the band treatment is “Start Again,” which reproduces the original’s anthemic sound by featuring several surround-sound voices – albeit in a roots style more reminiscent of the Crows’ own, somewhere closer to folk than the Teenage Fanclub’s alternative rock. Last but not least, listen out for the belligerent background accompaniment in “Return of the Grievous Angel” and Duritz’s crazed (though not entirely unusual) yelps in the Bob Dylan tribute “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
The exception to the rule is “Like Teenage Gravity,” which might just be, well, the album’s center of gravity, but also its slowest, most humble piece. The lyrics echo the carefree, easy-going theme (the track’s conclusion, “So I guess I’m in love,” rings like a youthful cliché), but the tone is noticeably more somber. And the way Duritz rolls and accents the “round here” is, to those familiar with the Counting Crows catalog, a nostalgic throwback to the band’s spectral hit of the same name that spearheaded their first ever album, August and Everything After.
Another throwback, “Four White Stallions,” which actually featured on the 2006 revised edition of the Crows’ album Hard Candy, is barely updated, but is a fitting inclusion that blends in perhaps better here than it did in the previous collection. “Jumping Jesus” shines during the first minute before faltering slightly at one of Duritz’s most excruciating yowls and, finally, clinches again with a brief instrumental pause, followed by the catchy chorus. The album’s closer, “The Ballad of El Goodo” from the cult power pop group Big Star, is a complete miss that should’ve remained untouched.
This cover project is a commendable, if imperfect, effort that provides several memorable moments and a warm seasonal soundtrack, but does little to improve originals that weren’t half bad to begin with. Ultimately, Underwater Sunshine is a fun listen that nonetheless feels superfluous to the current music scene and loses allure because it’s not penned by the band itself. If you want the magic of Counting Crows, stick to the band’s earlier material, which at least boasts original and – at their best – extraordinary lyrics set to its author’s whimsical voice.
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