Counting Crows follow up on 2008’s Saturday Nights Sunday Mornings with an album of cover versions Underwater Sunshine (or what we did on our summer vacation) from the likes of Big Star, Gram Parsons, Teenage Fanclub and Fairport Convention.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and poorly conceived covers albums (hello Sinead O’Connor, Duran Duran, and Guns n’Roses, just for starters). While a single cover version played live or recorded can be inspired, inspiring, and insightful for an artist (like Cake’s take on Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive), stringing together a full album of them usually spells contractual obligations, writer’s block, or an attempt at grabbing some kind of long-lost artistic credibility.
Which is all a shame, because that moment when a songwriter takes on someone else’s song, with honest intentions and talent, and manages to shift it off its axis into some new direction is a treasure, a precious moment that reminds you of the endless possibilities of a string of notes and harmonies (for example, when David Gray covered Soft Cell’s Say Hello Wave Goodbye); maybe the problem is that it only works in small doses – usually in the live arena or as a tangent (there’s a reason why, for the most part, covers were – back in the day when singles existed – b-sides).
So it was with caution I approached the new offering from Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine (or what we did on our summer vacation), a record of covers that doesn’t seem to fit any of the patterns listed; they’re coming off the back of a really strong album (Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings) admittedly released in 2008 but a gap of four years for CC is standard; they don’t appear to be suffering from writer’s block (lead singer Adam Duritz spent last year working on an acclaimed musical production ‘Black Sun’ with Stephen Belber, whilst various other crows projects went ahead including records from Tender Mercies, and sell out tours), and contrary to the usual pattern of things Counting Crows are more famous than many of the artists on the record (though there are big names like fairport convention, gram parsons, and big star on offer as well); so the driving logic seems to be a simple one – to record an album of songs they love to play as a band, and the simplicity and sincerity pays off big time.
One thing to say from the outset is that plenty of the originals on the record are new to me – like, for example, the opener ‘untitled (love song)‘ by The Romany Rye, so it’s hard to measure how much the songs have been changed/altered/bettered or been subject to sacrilege, which is the easiest route for talking about covers. Instead, this is a record that in many aspects sounds very much like Counting Crows. Listening to songs like Hospital (Coby Brown) with its very obvious, though poetic, focus on mental illness, or Amie (Pure Prarie League) with its ‘falling in and out of love with you’ refrain, its familiar but rich territory for Adam Duritz to sing (and like the rest of the band, he’s sounding as good as he ever has).
With its mix of alt-rock and country, though not necessarily in the doses you’d expect – for example, Gram Parson’s Return of the Grievous Angel is rocked more than you’d expect (and works well for it) – it’s not pushing at their musical boundaries by any stretch of the imagination, but that makes it sound easier and less brave than it actually must have been; the space the band leaves on songs like Meet me on the Ledge (Fairport Convention) sounds effortless, yet how much confidence and work must it take to not only approach a song like that, but to approach it your own way. So not only does it sound like a Counting Crows album, it sounds like a really good one – one with a swing in its step.
While we’re talking about Meet me on the Ledge, another thing that I love is that, though Counting Crows are as American as a band can be, when approaching a classic from one of the cornerstones of English Folk, they’ve avoided the temptation both vocally and instrumentally to ape Fairport’s accent. They sing and play it in their own voice, and pay it the respect it is due as a result.
It’s not perfect though – and there’s one particular song, at least in my opinion, that seems to stand out worried, awkward and obtrusive, and that’s the cover of Travis’s Coming Around. The band race into it, and like someone taking a quick run at a too-steep hill they lose their breath as the gradient hits them; it’s not that it’s a bad song, or that themeatically it’s ungainly in its context – it just doesn’t seem to suit them, at least not like the other songs on display (and there’s a wide range of songs on display here, including fellow scots Teenage Fanclub). Talking, with paste magazine, about the inspiration behind covering each tune Duritz described how at the start of the project things weren’t going so well, and he had the idea to really quickly record Coming Around (and another unnamed song)- almost as ‘like cleansing our pallet. It really worked.” It may have worked on a practical level for the band – but listening to it now it is one of the few tunes on the record that sounds like a traditional cover; a curiousity best left for a b-side. That’s a minor grievance though, for a record that is full of delight and love.