Artist Spotlight: Counting Crows – Just Hear Me Out

Why would anyone want to write about the Counting Crows? They’re neither obscure nor particularly interesting, right? Well, I’ll grant you the first one. For a long time, they were pretty unescapable. But
I think they are more interesting than their reputation suggests. Once considered “the sound of a generation” along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, they’ve lost their luster over the years as their ubiquitous “YEAAHHH!” made them synonymous with whiny gen-x laziness. But the thing is, there is more to them than their radio hits and hopefully this short look will encourage you to at least give them another try. I know that people here consider them milquetoast, but I would like you to step back a second and consider discovering them anew. I would like you to remove them from their context of 90’s grunge. Don’t assume they are trying to fit into that world, because they never were. When you hear a song of theirs and you don’t know that it was a radio companion to Nirvana and you don’t know what scene they are “supposed” to fit into, you may find that they are completely different than you thought they were.

The story of Counting Crows begins with Adam Duritz’s previous group, the Himalayans. Listening
to their album, most people would just automatically assume its Counting Crows, that’s how distinctive Duritz’s voice is. A closer listen reveals that there are some differences. The bass is more pronounced and the performances are less folky and more jangle-pop.

the bass-heavy, more “messy” Himalayan version of the iconic “Round Here”…

What is clear from the start and never leaves is that Duritz’s lyrics are about longing. That’s something you are either going to love or hate about him. He always sounds a bit uncomfortable, like he’d rather be somewhere else. This isn’t surprising when you know a little about his mental state. Adam Duritz
suffers from Depersonalization Disorder, a dissociation disorder “that causes sufferers to feel as though they are outside observers of themselves, disconnected from their physical bodies and no longer in control of their thoughts and actions.” ( http://www.huffingtonpost.c… ) As one might imagine, this disorder also causes large amounts of anxiety as well as feeling isolated. It can lead to one being unable to recognize the care and love that other people are giving you. It’s a very frustrating feeling to rationally know that someone is showing you love and affection, but something isn’t clicking and it’s not registering emotionally. You feel like you are watching someone else be loved, and it ends up making you feel more alone and jealous than you were before – jealous of the person you are watching, even though that person is supposedly you.

Or so I’ve heard. (… )

“Counting Crows” wasn’t just Duritz moving to a new group of background musicians. It was an organic outgrowth of the production of The Himalayan’s album, as the producer of that album became Counting Crows guitar player and significant co-writer. The new band did have some important differences, though. From the very first moments of the very first album, the guitar was more folky and Duritz performances were less of a yell and more of a sob. A friend of mine once pointed out to me that Counting Crows was really a country band, and no one realized that because
Duritz doesn’t have a southern accent. I think the observation is apt, at least for their first two albums. One of the reasons people end up not liking Counting Crows is because it doesn’t really rock. I don’t think it is supposed to. I think they were filed under grunge because that’s what flannel alternative was to a lot of people, and then they were judged against a standard they never asked for. I think this is most clearly shown in their live shows of the time, especially their acoustic sets, where they seem to consciously eschew both any sense of what 90’s alternative was “supposed” to be as well as, tellingly, any semblance of their own album versions of the songs. They are much more Sinead O’Connor’s and Lisa Loeb’s musical companions than any of the male grunge they are usually put with.

A hallmark of Counting Crows shows has always been that they rarely perform a song the same way two nights in a row. The concerts are designed for people who already know the album versions and want to hear new wrinkles. This can be frustrating for some people, especially since it does mean (and I know this from personal experience) that what you end up getting at the shows might be a version that is much less satisfying than what you were expecting to hear. But it can also be a huge improvement, and either way you leave knowing that at least you got something that you couldn’t
have gotten just by buying the CD.

For most people, Counting Crows had two albums – the one with Mr.Jones/Round Here and the one with A Long December. Those were definitely the albums they came out when their star shone the brightest. But it’s a shame if that’s all you know, because those two albums were just practice for the group they became during the extended touring that following, a growth and cohesion that resulted in This Desert Life, a third album that is much more sophisticated. For a lot of CC fans, this third album is their masterpiece and the place where their voice shines through the strongest.

And the beautiful, haunting favorite of mine: colorblind.

This Desert Life is a very sad album, but it is unabashed in its choices. This is a band expressing themselves, not trying to prove their worth. This confidence found even greater expression
on their fourth album Hard Candy, which musically was much more varied and experimental than anything they had done up to that point.

but they still did isolated and insomniac like no one else

They’ve continued to put out albums since then. Fitfully and unevenly, as Duritz’s anxiety seems to get the better of him for long periods at a time. They also do a LOT of covers, even on their latter albums. This hides Duritz’s remarkable songwriting, or maybe makes up for the times when he’s not up to it. But that’s ok. When they do get around to just being themselves, one finds that who they are might not be rockers, but it is unique.