Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hootie who? Counting Crows - Somewhere Under Wonderland

This I know about Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz: he is very tall (he once stood next to me - to my surprise - at a Who concert); he has made social media a confessional for some, at times, pretty intense thoughts about his life; he did not inspire Sideshow Bob, Bart Simpson's dreadlocked arch nemesis.

The other thing I know about Duritz is his tendency to write impenetrable lyrics that tie themselves in knots of verbal complexity, which is one of the first things to hit you about Palisades Park, the sprawling opener of the Crows' seventh studio album and their first in a long time, Somewhere Under Wonderland.

It's a dewy-eyed romp through childhood memories of a New Jersey theme park and, in an instant - well, an eight-minute instant - re-establishes Counting Crows as one of America's finest purveyors of wholemeal rock (and, as I quickly concluded on my drive north from Lake Tahoe to Oregon, the perfect accompaniment for a road trip - "Keep going till we hit Reno, Nevada" Duritz sings helpfully, just as Reno passed by my right-hand window.

Reminiscent of Elton John's Madman Across The Water, and with the New Jersey reference inevitably drawing comparison to Bruce Springsteen's heartland storytelling, the song jumps manically like a big dipper as it recalls friendship lost in a typical Duritz style - a mixture of melancholy and dour wrapped in a bouncy rocker, as much of this album is.

For a native of Baltimore, who made his name in San Francisco, has lived in LA and only recently relocated to New York, Duritz spans the American geography throughout Somewhere Under Wonderland. But whereas plenty before have documented America in song, America - and California in particular - act as a vast backdrop for the exploration of his own neuroses, in particular a chronic sense of loneliness.

It seems odd that for someone who has lived in the second most populated city in the US, and now lives in its first, this should be an issue, but as anyone who has followed him on Twitter will attest, social detachment has been a challenge for most of his adult life. Here, then you find Duritz at his most confessional. Earthquake Driver talks of the restless spirit that took him "skipping and diving and bouncing back to New York City", unsure whether he wants to be "...an earthquake driver...an aquarium diver...I just don't want to go home", but living along "hungry for affection... I just struggle with connection 'til the water calls me home/Down into ocean among millions of other lonely people/Drowning among the only people we are ever going to know."

It sounds morose - and it probably is - but the Crows as a band - in particular, Dan Vickrey's southern blues-infused guitar - lift Duritz's lyrics up with infectiousness.

Even on a song as dystopian as Elvis Went To Hollywood ("When Elvis went to Hollywood, that's when everything went wrong") the seven-piece contrive to make something vibrant.

There is more than a lot of classic 70s rock to like about Somewhere Under Wonderland, with glimpses of The Doors on Dislocation (which also borrows from the J Geils Band's Centerfold - "So I write to all the girly magazines/Splash my passion on the pages in between") and even Lynyrd Skynyrd on Scarecrow. There are also more contemplative moments, such as John Appleseed’s Lament and Possibility Days, which set Duritz's lyrical intensity against reflective musicianship, with neither overdoing the other.

Unlike the bland and even uninspiring nature of the last new album I listened to, U2's Songs Of Innocence, this one is immediate, even when you have to listen for a second or third time in the hope of unravelling the intricacy of Duritz's words. This is earnest rock-pop, a kind that American bands do best, be it Wilco or Phish, Dave Matthews or Hootie & The Blowfish, and you can even throw Kings of Leon into that pool. Like so many things in the US, familiarity is key to its appeal, but don't take that to be an accusation of homogeneity.

Whether it's the tonal comfort of listening to a classic rock album while on an American road trip, or simply the perfect storm of brilliant songwriting and brilliant performance, Somewhere Under Wonderland is an instantly enjoyable record, and without doubt Counting Crows best for a long, long time.

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