For 23 years now, Bay Area septet Counting Crows has been somewhat of an anomaly in pop music. They’re just as comfortable ripping out a 3-hour, free-form jam-band set on festival and stadium stages the world over as they are on the soundtracks to big-budget romcoms and kids movies. Not bad for a band who started as a humble duo in the coffee shops of their native Berkeley in the early ‘90s. Yet over the course of six studio albums (starting with the modern classic August and Everything After in 1993) and decades spent interfacing with their adoring fanbase both in person and online, there’s no contest that they’ve put in more legwork than most of their ‘90s major-label contemporaries and the fact they’ve been independent since 2009 is a further testament to their integrity.
This month they rejoin producer Brian Deck – who helmed their 2008 release Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (as well as an impressive list of others from Iron and Wine to Modest Mouse) – for their seventh studio effort Somewhere Under Wonderland. Over the course of the record’s nine tracks, Counting Crows yet again demonstrate their innate ability to serve as pop-rock’s preeminent chameleons. Case in point is the prog-pop opus that is album opener and lead single Palisades Park – it opens with some gentle piano and muted trumpet and over its 8 minutes and 21 seconds, travels everywhere from earnest, lyrically candid piano balladry to ballsy, ‘70s-radio riff-rock.
Although for all the tasteful virtuosity in Counting Crows’ playing, it’s always been the unguarded storytelling and sonorous baritone of frontman Adam Duritz that has tied together the impressively far-reaching pool of influence from which the band draws. There’s a certain literary/cinematic quality to his stream of consciousness writing and each song feels more like a work of flash-fiction than a traditional pop tune.
The swinging pop-rock of Earthquake Driver is bolstered by handclaps, Wurlitzer and uniquely Californian harmonies and the out-and-out rock ‘n’ roll of Dislocation harks back to the engaging earnestness of their earlier output – albeit in a way that’s interesting, rather than playing the nostalgia card like a lot of bands of their ilk.
After an intro that sounds suspiciously like Dust in the Wind by ‘70s rockers Kansas, God of Ocean Tides proves to be an irresistible slice of McCartney-esque folk – all the while bearing that indelible Counting Crows oeuvre. The Laurel Canyon influence is in full effect with Crazy Horse/Eagles guitars, salty organ and mellotron before a glorious slice of mid-‘90s powerpop in the form of Elvis Went To Hollywood. There’s something really charming about the non-sequitur transitions, woah-oh-oh hooks and unapologetic, twin guitar solos (Also, bonus points for name-checking the late Alex Chilton of Big Star – the man who arguably coined the powerpop genre).
The freight-train pseudo-country of Cover Up The Sun – with mandolin, fiddle and wonderfully saccharine backing vocals – shows the keen attention to detail of their musicianship and the drunken slide guitar that heralds the start of Johnny Appleseed’s Lament sounds like the Allman Brothers in their prime. The fortuitously titled Possibility Days draws Somewhere Under Wonderland to a beautiful close with its lilting, cascading dynamics that build and breathe with a poise and command that few other bands could even hope to match.
From start to finish, it’s plain to see that Counting Crows have been around long enough to have earned their stripes and for as much diverse musical ground as they manage to traverse, they always have their own unmistakable sound. Somewhere Under Wonderland is yet another in a long line of pretty flawless pop-rock records by a band whose sense of instrumental adventurousness is only matched by the raw emotion of their masterful craftsmanship in pop songwriting.