Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2008, Volume 15, #3
Written by John Metzger
Mon March 24, 2008, 06:25 PM CDT
There’s no denying the fact that Counting Crows comes out fighting hard on Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, its first studio outing in nearly six years. A furious rush of stabbing electric guitar and feverish vocals, 1492, the collection’s opening cut, is as punishing and edgy a song as any that the band has recorded. The tune builds upon the angry intensity that filtered through Counting Crows’ sophomore set Recovering the Satellites, and it — along with the subsequent Hanging Tree — has been designed specifically to tap into the raw power of the outfit’s stage persona. The question, however, is whether or not the group’s resurrection has happened too late.
Since issuing Hard Candy in 2002, Counting Crows’ career has, at best, been stuck in a virtual holding pattern. In fact, some would say that the band’s once high-flying airship had crashed in the fields of its own misery, after being sideswiped by Accidentally in Love, the interminably perky hit it penned for Shrek. The intensity of 1492 — on which front man Adam Duritz sings in sheer desperation, "I am the king of everything/I am the king of nothing/Oh, where did we disappear" — suggests, however, that Counting Crows knows not only that it has gone at least slightly astray, but also how important the success of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is to its future. In embracing rather than running from Duritz’s heartfelt introspection, the outfit essentially has staked its entire reputation upon its ability to shed the comfort zone of its recent output and return to the burning anguish of its past glory.
Oddly enough, after the ensemble enjoyed such immense success with its debut August and Everything After, Counting Crows became a polarizing figure on the pop music scene. People either loved or hated the group, and this disparity grew with each passing album. The band’s material hinged as much upon Durtiz’s improvisational playfulness — that is, his unerring knack for threading the lyrics from one song through the nucleus of another — as they did on the instrumentalists’ ability to keep pace with his freewheeling sojourns. The strength of his conviction was what made it all work so well. Yet, for many, Duritz’s penchant not just for wearing his heart on his sleeve but also for taking a knife to his wrist and allowing the blood to spill all over the written pages of his poetic lyrics remained a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
Like the chapters in a novel, each of Counting Crows’ initial three studio albums — August and Everything After, Recovering the Satellites, and This Desert Life — fit together to form a nearly perfect trilogy that reflected Duritz’s emotional state. By contrast, Hard Candy didn’t really do anything to extend this storyline, and even today, it continues to feel like it stands on its own, outside the scope of the preceding endeavors. Part of this stems from the notion that the effort — as well as the slate of songs that Counting Crows has contributed to an array of film soundtracks — was designed specifically to maintain and grow the band’s sizeable commercial presence by tempering Duritz’s typically gloomy outlook on life. If given a chance, Hard Candy proved itself to be better than first impressions otherwise would imply. Nevertheless, it also was an uncharacteristic anomaly that, at times, made it seem as if the group was putting up a front and trying to be something other than itself.
Chasing the almighty dollar is, of course, never a wise strategy for artists to follow. For a band that frequently has had a tenuous relationship with critics and the mainstream public alike, such a move quickly can turn into a death knell. With Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, however, it is immediately apparent that Counting Crows has awakened from its slumber, rediscovered its grand ambitions, and stormed back with a vengeance. Much as its title suggests, Duritz and company have crafted an album that is obsessed with the age-old issues of sin and the possibility of redemption, and over the course of the endeavor, the group fully explores Duritz’s pained existence by viewing it through the prism of the boxed-up scars that love and life have left sitting on his doorstep. Full of angst and insecurity but delivered with an egotistical flair, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is more tightly bound to the ensemble’s first three outings than it is to Hard Candy. Yet, through its deliberative machinations, the set simultaneously serves as a sort of penance, one which ultimately bridges the gaps that lie between everything that Counting Crows has ever done.
There are those who would claim that Counting Crows typically has fared better in concert than it has on its albums, but this is not entirely the best perspective for viewing the group’s work. Instead, these two components of its career must be viewed hand-in-hand because there undeniably is a give-and-take that occurs between the time it spends in the studio and its treks around the globe. Never content with simply replicating the familiar versions of its material, Counting Crows has twisted and turned its catalogue in knots. Years ago, the band developed a framework for its live performances, one in which an acoustic segment is tucked firmly into the center of its electric stampede. This formula has worked remarkably well for the band because it so effectively has allowed it to reinvent its songs time and again to suit whatever story it is trying to tell.
This structure is, in many ways, the impetus for Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings, too, and anyone familiar with Counting Crows’ canon certainly will find more than a few musical and lyrical allusions to its past lurking within its new compositions. If there is a flaw to the endeavor, it rests with the fact that these songs seem to have been penned with the idea that they all could be dismantled and reassembled in a concert setting. Where each of its prior outings injected new forms of expression into Counting Crows’ repertoire, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings plays like a collection of its greatest hits.
In the end, though, it matters little. Whether it’s the gentle folk of On Almost Any Sunday Morning or the Beatle-esque bass line that powers Insignificant, whether it’s the how the band uses Los Angeles to dabble in the same country-soul textures that fueled Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection or how it parlayed its own Have You Seen Me Lately? and Daylight Fading into the set-closing Come Around, these tunes have a lot of heart. Impassioned, confident, and wholly engaging, Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is precisely the kind of album that the collective needed to make in order to reconstitute its wandering base of fans. At long last, Counting Crows is back on track. ½
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box