January 26, 2015 Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland (Album Review)
Bursting onto the scene at the perfect time with their forlorn lyrics, college-guy looks, and emotional angst just as Grunge was sounding its death knell, Northern Californian Alternative Rock band Counting Crows’s 1993 debut album August and Everything After, on the strength of the single “Mr. Jones,” was a huge smash. Frontman Adam Duritz, with his long dreadlocks, became the face of the Post-Grunge era. Since their debut, the band has sold more than twenty million albums worldwide and remain a staple on adult Alternative and college radio releasing a total of seven studio albums including their most recent in 2014 titled Somewhere Under Wonderland. Employing the services of producer Brian Deck for the first time since 2008’s Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, finds the band adopting several different styles and paying homage to their numerous, various influences. Songs range in style from straight ahead Rock-n-Roll, Alt-Country, pure Pop, Country-Rock, and of course college Rock. Gone is the relentless yearning for the world to be “right” and “fair, and to be “understood”, replaced by songs reflecting on those times with a sense of joy, very little sorrow, and no regret. The band is showing its age on this album, but rather than pine for their youth, as if it is the only answer, they somehow both wax nostalgia and present a bright future.
The album’s opening salvo is a peculiar one. “Palisades Park”, not a cover of Freddy Cannon’s smash from 1962, starts with an almost two minute, horn and piano intro that sounds like it was peeled from a 1970’s detective show. Acting as the lead single from the record, the song then goes into familiar territory with a rolling piano riff which Duritz sings over in his signature style of urgency, alternating with a fast paced chorus for over eight minutes. A very ambitious track to open the album, as it could be three or four separate songs. “Earthquake Driver” finds the band in comfortable territory with an upbeat electric guitar melody, acoustic accents, plenty of “oohs and aahs” in the backing vocals, and hand claps. Swirling honky tonk piano take this song to a place above standard adult Alternative fare. “Dislocation” finds the band facing Father Time head on over a hard-driving guitar lead. Here, reflections on a youth splattered with typical indiscretions and unexpected, sudden success, are married to the harsh reality of age as Duritz sings, “telling lies and taking shots/getting laid in parking lots/getting high and getting caught……..I am written in the radio/I dream on my tv/dislocation dislocation/I’m fading out in stereo/I don’t remember me.”
Later on, “Scarecrow” is a fascinating cut for the band as they meld, for them, a heavy guitar riff with Country tinged elements, producing a song that would probably top today’s Country charts if it was released by Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton. A pounding guitar, piano, organ, and drums outro close the deal on this one. “Elvis Went to Hollywood” kicks off with guitars that remind the listener of early Pearl Jam, fast and arrogant. The song never lets up and keeps the frenetic pace going to the end, a nice departure from the bands usually serious subject matter as they take on Elvis, Frankenstein, and Alex Chilton. On “Cover Up the Sun”, the band goes full-tilt Country boogie; and does it well. Twangy guitars, Country piano, and shuffling drums set the stage for the story of a young man not heading west, but east from California to New Orleans at the age of twenty-nine. A song penned by men well out of their thirties about a man approaching his thirties, no small feat, but it is executed perfectly with a brilliant combination of retrospect and anticipation.
As the album winds down “John Appleseed’s Lament” kicks off with a brief, blistering Blues riff that, unfortunately never resurfaces, at least not as bold. However, excellent slide guitars supplement the melody throughout the song, never repeating a lick over the almost five minute long track. A unique departure for the band as the entire song is essentially a drumbeat and an extended guitar solo with some keys mixed in deep down in the mix. “Possibility Days” closes the record as the band dispels the myth that you can never go home again as it is vintage Counting Crows. Low end pianos with gentle, almost “excuse-me” drums, light acoustic guitar strumming lay the foundation for a song lamenting heartbreak. The song is bleak, there is no silver lining, there is no hope for reconnection; “…somehow we mixed up “goodbye” and “good night”/it just feels wrong/so wrong/still you’re gone/long gone.”
Somewhere Under Wonderland finds the band not exactly copying Springsteen, Dylan, The Band, and R.E.M., but deftly displaying their influence as they wistfully meander between Springsteen’s lunch pail aesthetic, the Band’s varying styles, Dylan’s sometimes puzzling, yet poetic lyrics, and R.E.M.’s always unconventional stance on raw emotion. Well-respected veterans of Alternative Rock, Counting Crows have clearly taken advantage of the passage of time by honing their own skills and style. CrypticRock gives Somewhere Under Wonderland 4 out of 5 stars.