Make us your home page
Instagram

Review: 'Somewhere Under Wonderland' a turning point for Counting Crows

Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz is his own best enemy, forever trapped in a dreadlocked head that issues inspiration and frustration in equal, unpredictable bursts. It's not easy being him; it's not all that easy being a fan, either.

After '90s LPs August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites — modern-classic chronicles of love and longing, stunning promises of a special career blooming — the roots-rocking Crows have been at the mercy of Duritz's diminishing skills. Ensuing albums were increasingly diluted, unfocused, soon to be dusty at the bottom of your CD stack. Our Man of Eternal Pining, the former future Bob Dylan (or so he yelped on breakout hit Mr. Jones), went dark, forgotten, gone.

Until now, that is.

A month after Duritz's 50th birthday, a milestone that seemingly untangled his beautifully beleaguered mind, the Crows have released Somewhere Under Wonderland, the band's first original material in six years — and their best in twice that long. The album reunites the crew with a major label, Capitol Records, which means some executives somewhere heard something really good. Indeed they did.

Duritz is writing catchy, sob-along songs again, fast ones (the fun wordplay of Scarecrow), slow ones (acoustic wisp God of Ocean Tides), all of them lovingly faded postcards of days, and paramours, gone by. The themes are the same as always, but the narratives are once again built in seductively layered, ear-pleasing ways. The album is also a surging reminder that the Crows' strengths go far beyond Duritz's wounded holler and heart-sleeved lyricism; the band is an incredible engine. Dan Vickrey's Southern switchblade guitar is all over this record, a constant defiant uplift set against the singer's mournful remembrances.

Much of Somewhere Under Wonderland is upbeat, at least tempowise. Along with Scarecrow, Earthquake Driver is the most obvious "single" the Crows have popped out in years, rollicking in its crunchy-hippie California-ness. And yet the album's high point is a slow one, piano-dirge closer Possibility Days, which earns a place among the band's best, and most brutal, ballads. Fair warning: It's a doozy, an unflinching look at a good thing gone helplessly sour. A sorta-stripped reimagining of A Long December, the breakup cut opens with this utterly Duritzian poetry: "It was a cold 3 a.m. at JFK / I guess you stayed because you wanted to stay / We went from zero to everything all in a day / And then Kennedy took you away." Yep, and it gets a whole lot bleaker after that.

Crows fans are a cautious lot, and with good reason. At first glance, opening track Palisades Park can cause pause: more than eight minutes long, several tonal shifts. Uh-oh. But when Duritz is good, he's really good, and almost everything on the album works to a fine degree. After a sunrise trumpet solo, Palisades Park gets faster in flipping chapters, Duritz embracing the funhouse freak-show that is his life. ("There's a Wild Mouse spinning the girls around.") The epic chug is reminiscent of 2000 gem Mrs. Potter's Lullaby, written for actor Monica Potter, one of Duritz's myriad celeb exes, a list that famously includes the Friends duo of Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox.

The first time through Somewhere Under Wonderland I wasn't quite sure what I was hearing: Is this a truly great Counting Crows album? Or am I wishful thinking? But then I kept listening, not just for a review, but just for me as well, which, as any critic will tell you, is the mark of something special. Maybe Duritz's 50s will be a bountiful creative period. Or maybe he'll once again get lost in that bedreaded head of his. Oh, the price of an overworked brain and those who adore it. All you can do is enjoy the highs, endure the lows and try to be patient during the journey in between.

Contact Sean Daly at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.

Somewhere Under Wonderland

Counting Crows

(Capitol)

Grade: A

Review: 'Somewhere Under Wonderland' a turning point for Counting Crows 09/02/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2014 4:43pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. 10 things to do in Tampa Bay for Aug. 24

    Events

    Lalah Hathaway: A Grammy Award-winning jazz and soul singer. 8 p.m., Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin St., Tampa. $34.50-$69.50. (813) 274-8982.

    HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 03:  Recording artist Lalah Hathaway performs onstage during the BET Presents Super Bowl Gospel Celebration at Lakewood Church on February 3, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for BET)
  2. How to make a Strawberry Banana Smoothie

    Cooking

    Don't enjoy breakfast but need to get something in your stomach? Cranky around 3 p.m. and need a jolt of energy? Have trouble getting your daily recommended fruit servings? This smoothie is the cure for all of that and more. It's become my morning go-to. The secret ingredient here is kefir, a probiotic product that's …

    Strawberry Banana Smoothie. Photo by Michelle Stark, Times food editor.
  3. Hernando Events for Aug. 25-31

    Events

    25 Friday

    Free Zika training: Presented by the Hernando Computer Club, the training is for those who wish to assist in the effort to find a cure for the Zika virus. Club members are volunteers for World Community Grid and are donating their devices' spare computing power to help scientists find a …

  4. Robert Pattinson is better than 'Twilight.' 'Good Time' proves it

    Movies

    INDIE FLICKS:

    GOOD TIME

    Don't judge actors by the books they cover on screen. It appears truer with each performance that two of our finest got their starts with the Twilight franchise.

    Robert Pattinson hooks viewers in Good Time, an inventive crime story.
  5. In 'George and Ruth,' letters unearth revolution and romance amid Spanish Civil War

    Stage

    In 1936, Spanish nationalists led by Gen. Francisco Franco staged a successful revolt against a democratically elected leftist government, beginning the Spanish Civil War. Para-military socialist and communist forces of the International Brigades rallied to help the government in a losing cause. Among them was …

    Katherine Stenzel and Jeff Lukas play Ruth Rosenthal Watt and George Watt in George and Ruth: Songs and Letters from the Spanish Civil War, at the Silver Meteor Gallery from Aug. 17 to 27.