May 2021 saw five EPs offering different spins on contemporary music from Nashville. Take your pick from the trad-pop of Dillon Carmichael, the Chesney-Aldean rockin’ country of Alexander Ludwig, the flawless roots-rock of Counting Crows, the Sheeran-pop of Ross Copperman and the radio-friendly unit-shifting country of Jordan Davis.
The Berkeley band’s debut album August and Everything After from 193 was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Back then, seven years before T-Bone helped produce the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, Americana as a genre didn’t exist; it was called modern rock and encompassed every quirky, soulful, idiosyncratic band with guitars. In fact, Mr Jones (a top five song on American radio) didn’t properly chart because it wasn’t available as a physical single because the music industry were trying to entice people to spend $20 on an album, not $5 on a single. Then came iTunes and the emancipation of music.
Their last release was 2014, which was their first album of original music since 2008, so apart from two albums of covers Adam Duritz hasn’t written a great deal. Until now. In 2021, Counting Crows are their own entity. No longer locked into a deal with Geffen, whose money helped get them to American ears, they can release music when and where they want, and in whatever format. Butter Miracle is a suite of four pieces of music where each song melds into each other. I love Elevator Boots, a song about being on the road and playing rock’n’roll shows, something Counting Crows have done since about 1990. It has rootsy verses telling the story of Bobby and Alice, with an explosive and immediate chorus.
The Tall Grass uses a drum loop, over which the band create a comfortable mood which sets Adam Duritz’s lyrics, which include nouns like rifle, rabbit, clover and grassland, as well as the repeated statements ‘Can you see me? and ‘I don’t know why’. Adam’s dissociative disorder informs his songwriting, which has always been about uncertainty.
Angel of 14th Street includes the line ‘when she dies a ghost is born’ while ‘the king is screaming highway songs’. This is Duritz as Dylan, a familiar storytelling mien for him; in a different more folky arrangement this could have been a tune from the early days of the band, back when they were The Himalayans. The 2021 iteration of the band are full of harmonies, fortissimo trumpets, guitar lines and Adam yelling ‘Wake up!’ like Marvin Gaye and singing about angels, another common motif in his work. Perhaps he’s been checking out his old material and digesting it into one song.
Then there’s the bar-band bonanza of Bobby and the Rat-Kings, which will get thinkpieces because old man Adam (he’s 56) namechecks Tinder and Reddit, tools of a generation which ‘hasn’t even got a name of its own’ and for whom music helps them be comfortable in their own identity. I like the way Counting Crows sound very American: harmony like The Byrds, country like The Band, rock like the Heartbreakers, together in arms like The E Street Band.
They remain underrated only because they have only put out so few albums relative to their peers. It is so good to hear Adam showing us his latest homework, though he’s more likely to be cooking on Instagram these days.