Review: Counting Crows’ “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings”

Adam Duritz definitely doesn’t get the credit he deserves.  Early on, of course he did, around the time Counting Crows’ debut album “August and Everything After” came out, but that may just be because that album was (and still is) an all-out classic.   Too often now, it seems his lyrical brilliance is forgotten.

  He hasn’t done himself many favors over the years to help his cause.  “Recovering the Satellites” from 1996 was every bit as brilliant as “August,” but 1999’s “This Desert Life” seemed a little phoned-in, with the exception of the stunning “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream.”  “Hard Candy” in 2002 was remarkably better, especially the fantastic summer-soaked single “American Girls,” but it seemed that Duritz had lost the dark loneliness and alienation that were present on the first two records.  A few years, ago, things got worse when the band did the goofy sing-along-ready theme to Shrek 2, “Accidentally In Love.”

This is not the way it was supposed to be.  In the early-to-mid 90’s, Counting Crows were the most pop-radio-friendly act on DGC Records’ roster.  Around this time, DGC boasted a who’s who in alt-rock, having Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Hole, Beck, Weezer, and the great but underappreciated Canadian band, Sloan! All of these groups, (Counting Crows included) no matter how happy on the surface, had a dark and/or progressively arty under-current beneath their music.      

It’s been six years since “Hard Candy,” and now “Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings” is poised to reintroduce Counting Crows to the music-buying public.  The strategy is simple.  It’s an album divided into two parts.  Six mostly louder, upbeat tracks represent the “Saturday Nights” half and eight mostly down-tempo tracks represent the “Sunday Mornings” half.  The whole thing clocks in at exactly an hour. 

The first half is produced by Gil Norton, who helmed “Recovering the Satellites.”  He should have done the whole album, because his half sports most of the record’s highlights.  Four tracks, “1492,” “Hanging Tree,” “Insignificant,” and “Cowboys” are some of the strongest songs Duritz has delivered in more than a decade.

  I really wish they’d do a full-tilt rock album, because they rock better than they are ever given credit for.  Sure, “Round Here” was monumental, but “Angels of the Silences” was grungy and angsty.  Duritz’s lyrics have always been wound quite tightly, and he has always been best when it is like he’s rambling them out of his mouth seemingly out of necessity.  Think about how enthralling the end of “Mr. Jones” is when it seems like he’s just shouting out lists in his head.

“1492” is exactly that kind of track.  He traces his origin and then is able to seamlessly merge the concept with stories of Italian disco parties with “skinny girls who drink champagne.” The chorus comes along and Columbus is mentioned amidst some sort of yearly number game.  How it all fits together gets confusing, but it doesn’t matter in the long run. It’s a loudly churning unsettled mess and it is glorious. 

“Hanging Tree” is the one of the coolest tracks on the disc.  The band has three guitarists in Dan Vickrey, David Immergluck and David Bryson.  As on “1492,” the guitars are allowed to get particularly unhinged and messy.  It makes me wonder what the band would sound like with really, really rough production -- if they were to work with someone like Steve Albini.  It’d be interesting to hear them really rock out with generous doses of screeching feedback, but sadly they’d probably never loosen their approach that much.

“Los Angeles” is next.  It’s a mildly enjoyable mid-tempo country, roadhouse bluesy track which is ruined near the end when Duritz shouts “We’re gonna get drunk, find ourselves some skinny girls and go street-walkin’!”  It gets worse.  At the very end of the song he declares, “And it’s a really good place to find yourself a taco!!”  My immediate response to that is nervous laughter and then repeated screams at my stereo, “NO! NO! NO!”  This is a low-grade B-side at best.  It somehow wound up on the wrong pile, I guess. 

“Sundays” is thankfully much better.  I find it interesting that this semi-reflective boogie wound up on the Saturday half, but then again, the chorus says “I don’t believe in Sundays,” which is a very “Saturday night” sentiment.  It would be nice for the weekend to never end, but sadly it always does!

“Insignificant” sounds like a lost track from “Recovering the Satellites” which means it restores the band to their glory days.  “August and Everything After” may be their most famous album, but it is “Satellites” I go back and listen to the most, thus “Insignificant” should most definitely be a single.

  The same goes for “Cowboys,” on which Duritz sings about “headlights and vapor trails and Circle K killers.”  The text is as rich with content as it is with self-reflection.  “I am not anything!” Duritz screams before a thunderous guitar solo, and it occurs to me that this is exactly the side of Adam Durtiz that I’ve missed.

With that, the momentum comes to a halt as the “Sunday Morning” half begins.  That half is mostly helmed by Brian Deck with the exception of the final track which is back in Norton’s hand. 

When handling softer material, Duritz tends to get a little grating.  His voice gets occasionally whiny and he’s just not as compelling as he is with more upbeat tracks.  Perhaps this is a letdown, because he just is so good when he can really scream.  While “Washington Square” and “Almost Any Sunday Morning” are enjoyable songs, they lack the spark present on the first half of the album. 

“When I Dream of Michelangelo” borrows its title from a line in “Angels of the Silences,” but it takes what was once a fresh idea and makes it the basis for a humdrum banjo number. 

“Anyone But You” is a stronger track, and proof that a strong backbeat can do wonders.  It is soft, but I could imagine it being a single.  It’s got a nice melody and just enough tension in it to keep things interesting. 

The first single is next on “You Can’t Count On Me.”  It’s not the song I would have picked, but it is pleasant enough.  The mid-tempo shuffle is punctuated by Charlie Gillingham’s pretty piano work, and occasional momentary guitar outbursts. 

The beginning of “Le Ballet D’Or” sounds like something lifted from a Zero 7 album, and there is something effectively rootsy about how Duritz sings, “Come now.  Let’s go dancing to the siren’s song.”

   “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago” is a rather standard piano ballad.  We’ve heard Counting Crows do this before and there is nothing particularly special about it, but it fills the “piano ballad” quota I suppose. 

“Come Around” is the last song, and because it is once again produced by Norton, it pops much like the first half.  It’s vintage Counting Crows in radio-ready mode. 

“Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings” is radically uneven, but the parts that are great are truly monumental, restoring Adam Duritz to his peak performance.  It would’ve been nice to get an all-killer record, but I’ll settle for a half-excellent one!  In the meantime, I have the feeling if Counting Crows continue to hone their hard-rocking side, we may yet get another masterpiece from them.  Adam Duritz has proven himself before and he can easily do it again.

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