Blissfulness is at the core of Wiseacre, the strikingly purifying sophomore record from Eric Slick. Wiseacre is a location, literally. It’s the place he married the light in his life, Natalie Prass, and titling the record after it is an attempt at bottling the euphoria of his wedding day. The record isn’t just about the joy that comes from a loving existence blossoming out of a new relationship, it’s also about the hard work that it takes to get to that place. The majority of his time has been behind a drum set, spending the last decade rounding out the industrious outfit Dr. Dog, and as of late, touring as a newlywed alongside his wife.
(Photo credit: Shervin Lainez)
Today I’ll be defending the earnest jangle of California’s Counting Crows. Their septuple-platinum, T-Bone Burnett-produced debut, August and Everything After, arrived in the fall of 1993, and it eventually became the fastest-selling record in the U.S. since Nirvana’s 1991 release, Nevermind. A band that has sold so many copies must be objectively good, right? Wrong — at least according to some. Counting Crows have become somewhat of an inside joke amongst snooty musicians and the hipster cognoscenti. They’ve even been accused of marketing their sincerity.
Still, why do we care what the music journalists and music snobs say? The Crows didn’t care, and in the process they countered the trends and outlasted a lot of their contemporaries. I believe that this could be the key to having a career in music. The Counting Crows remind me that it’s OK to write things that a discerning music writer might toss off as inauthentic or referential.
Counting Crows couldn’t have arrived at a weirder time in pop music. Hair metal was dead and grunge was reigning supreme among the masses. Nirvana’s In Utero was released on September 21, 1993, and featured harrowing musings such as “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old” (“Serve the Servants”). August and Everything After was released just one week earlier and contained similar insights via the melancholic lyrics of lead singer Adam Duritz — although they were largely overlooked.
For example: “Believe in me, because I don’t believe in anything,” from their hit song “Mr. Jones.” The song is downright nihilistic!
A major difference between Counting Crows and Nirvana, however, is that distortion was not the Crows’ weapon. The Crows chose clean Gore-Tex production, compressed drums and tambourines. The four major radio singles from August — “Mr. Jones,” “Round Here,” “Rain King” and “A Murder of One” — are all memorable and well-crafted pop songs. I’m not going to lie. If “Rain King” came on in my car, I’d probably start harmonizing. There are no two ways about it. The Crows are a hit-single band. Still, Duritz was pegged as a Van Morrison ringer (he was sometimes referred to as “Mini-Van”).
Surely the critics would love a breath of fresh power pop air amid the haze of Sears flannels and tattered Wranglers. Who is more NPR-friendly than T-Bone Burnett? But alas, this was not the case! A particularly cruel D-rated review from Entertainment Weekly called August “sluggish and meandering, with tastefully correct organs and mandolins, the songs are mostly the sort of plodding, earnest ‘rock music’ usually made by men twice [Counting Crows’] age.” The writer also goes on to knock the band’s aesthetic choices: “Duritz has the dreadlocks of a hippie rapper and the baggy shirt of an ersatz grunge kid; on SNL he topped it off with one of those sock hats associated with the rave world. And his utterly anonymous bandmates have the studied, college-student earnestness of yuppie-rocker bands like the Maniacs.”
I have unlimited empathy for the Crows. My band Dr. Dog has seen its fair share of unspeakable reviews from the cultural zeitgeist claiming that we pander to mainstream audiences and avoid risk-taking. When Pitchfork reviewed 2013’s B-Room they wrote, “Dr. Dog has rarely made music with any real sense of urgency or ambition.” The reviews for our most recent effort, The Psychedelic Swamp, assume that we’re stuck in a rut of predictable mediocrity. Consequence of Sound gave us a C- and lamented that “for an album that is meant to dabble in a new genre and explore an original concept, it’s still characterized by a surprising lack of reinvention.” I feel that we worked hard to try something different with our sonic palette. We’re fifteen years into our existence, and we still garner tired comparisons to the Bs: Beach Boys, Beatles, the Band. Critics also love to shit all over our aesthetic. One review even took a jab at our Etsy store! How discouraging. Still, we try to not let it bring us down. We soldier on. And it’s heartening to know that our live shows are pulling in our widest audiences to date.
So why the hell am I talking about Counting Crows in 2016? Well, I heard them again on the aptly titled Sirius XM station “Lithium” and I started to understand them a little bit better, and even noticed some comparisons to Dr. Dog. I don’t think Dr. Dog shares any overt songwriting similarities with the Crows, but I do think we exist in a similar musical purgatory. We both get written off as bands that write “happy” and “sentimental” songs, even though deeper digging would prove otherwise.
I write half of the songs for my other project Lithuania. Unsurprisingly, our 2015 debut, Hardcore Friends, had very little attention from the press. Is it because the songs aren’t hip? I write what I want to write. Is it because we’re not fashionable or attractive? I don’t have that skinny, New York, health Goth normcore look. I have more of a Josh Peck/Fred Savage thing going on.
I hope it’s not because I’m in Dr. Dog, because the two projects couldn’t be more different. Dr. Dog is a band heavily influenced by ’60s soul and psychedelia, and Lithuania bears more of a resemblance to Dinosaur Jr. or Hüsker Dü. I’m proud of both. I’m in the thick of writing the second Lithuania record and I’m learning to not give a fuck. So now you understand why I feel a certain responsibility to defend bands that have been shunned by critics and hardcore music fans alike. All right. Let’s get back to the topic at hand here.
In 1994, the Crows embraced their rapid ascent and went on to tour with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. However, lead single “Mr. Jones” ended up being prophetic, and Duritz suffered a nervous breakdown. Duritz has remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I learned that his dreadlocked coupe de cheveux has always been fake, which led me down a mental highway to philosopher N. Senada and his Theory of Obscurity — that artists do their best work in obscurity, unhampered by the audience — as applied to experimentalists the Residents. Duritz does not want to be recognized when in public, so his hair acts kind of like the Residents’ iconic eyeball masks. Is Adam Duritz an avant-garde recluse?
Duritz’s dissatisfaction with fame was well catalogued on the band’s 1996 album, Recovering the Satellites. The somber tone of Satellites seemed to fare a little better with the press. AllMusic championed the album’s straightforwardness: “the approach is harder and more direct, which gives even the ballads a more affecting, visceral feel.” It didn’t resonate the same with their fan base, however, and sold a then-disappointing two million copies. Upon re-evaluating, I think this album is solid. “A Long December” is the obvious standout here, with the crushing opening line, “A long December and there’s reason to believe/Maybe this year will be better than the last.” I’m not crying on my laptop.
I haven’t followed the band’s career trajectory too much since 1999’s This Desert Life. Still, the Crows seem to infiltrate my life in fits and starts. An ex of mine once told me their song “Accidentally in Love” from 2004’s Shrek 2 soundtrack was her favorite song of all time. I listened to it out of kindness and even tried to compliment it on its Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. We were both dying on the inside.
Are the Counting Crows influential and relevant? I can’t help but think that acclaimed artists such as Real Estate, DIIV and Mac DeMarco might owe some credit to the Crows — even if it may be unconscious. There’s definitely a shared over-usage of tambourine. I wonder what would happen if I dubbed August to a dilapidated cassette and ran it through a warbly chorus/pitch shifter pedal. I could probably pass it off as a rare Echo and the Bunnymen bootleg and start selling it at noise festivals.
I’d like to conclude this re-evaluation with a call to arms. I get into heated arguments with fellow musician friends about arena-sized bands that seem to receive no critical recognition. These artists are overlooked because of some personal vendetta or because they’re “too big,” “too banal,” or, my least favorite: “too jammy.” We should continue to look at these bands with a critical eye, but also remember that it’s OK to let our guards down — because we all have embarrassing taste. Especially me.