We gave it a C
Adam Duritz, lead singer for Counting Crows, is most intent on establishing his unhappiness over the course of his band’s second album, Recovering the Satellites. In song after song, he yowls out descriptions and metaphors for his condition: He tells us he’s in ”a lonely spiral” and that he’s ”all messed up but that’s nothing new” (”Monkey”), that he ”can’t find [his] way home” (”Children in Bloom”), that he’s got insomnia (”I’m Not Sleeping”). In a rare flash of concern for a listener whose sympathy may be waning, he asks, ”Won’t you leave me alone?” — or, rather, moans repeatedly, ”leave-leave-leave-leave-leave me alooooone” (”Miller’s Angels”). And, getting philosophical, Duritz allows as how he’s got a ”feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters but no pearl” (”A Long December”).
It ain’t no Pearl Jam, either, Adam. The commercial success of the Crows’ 1993 debut, August and Everything After (nearly 5 million sold) was tempered by frequent accusations that Duritz was doing a brazenly systematic Van Morrison impersonation. On Recovering the Satellites, the singer alternates a persistent Van-mania (husky scatting through jazz-bo melodies, arbitrary word repetition of the ”leave-leave-leave-leave” variety) with a shredded-vocal-cord attack that inescapably echoes Eddie Vedder. Indeed, no other current, moderately enjoyable, smash-hit band is so much a pastiche of its influences as is Counting Crows. Duritz, lead guitarist and cowriter David Bryson, and their band mates are the momentary kings of postmod rock quotation; they make artier practitioners of the trade, like the Pet Shop Boys, look like pikers. In addition to the influences cited above, the new album is suffused with stylistic fondnesses ranging from The Band and Bob Dylan to Bruce Hornsby and birds of a not-so-different feather, the Black Crowes.
Recovering is certainly canny, taking care to reproduce many of the elements that made August so popular. While the band has traded producers — T-Bone Burnett for Gil Norton (Pixies, Echo and the Bunnymen) — its sound remains the same: loose, jangly, folk-guitar based; prone to building a song to a rave-up jam yet not hostile to the occasional string section. As the Crows did last time, they moved into a house in Hollywood to record the album, turning the process into a lifestyle event: Astral Weeks spent in The Real World. It’s a tight yet cozy recording, with self-conscious details that play out as La-La Land clichés (”And it’s one more day up in the Canyon/One more night in Hollywood” goes the refrain of ”A Long December”).
Then, too, there’s what might be called the Crows’ woman problem. Females here tend to be either pathetically unhappy or condescended to — Marjorie in ”Another Horsedreamer’s Blues,” for example, takes ”pills” and Duritz suspects that one day she’ll ”throw the whole bottle down”; the satellites in the title song prove to be not sputniks but the women who surround the men in the band (”Of everybody’s satellites, I wish you were mine”).
If Recovering doesn’t contain a tune as friskily friendly as the band’s first hit, ”Mr. Jones,” it still has a lot of ingratiating music, especially if you don’t bother getting caught up in its trite downer lyrics. The truly lovely melody of ”Monkey” belies its ”all messed up” self-pity to delineate a poignant love affair. ”Mercury” makes the most of an awful chorus rhyme — ”She changes suddenly/She’s just like mercury” — on the strength of its slippery-smooth guitar lines and Duritz’s croon. And while the guitar teamwork of Bryson and Dan Vickrey has a meshed strength that bolsters Duritz’s vocals when he gets too morose, Recovering makes clear that the secret weapon of this band is Charles Gillingham’s keyboards, which, when not being deployed in portentous homage to The Band’s Garth Hudson, add a sprightliness and humor notably missing from the rest of the Crows’ work.
But what we have here, ultimately, is a sophomore effort in which more of the same bumps into just not enough. To use Duritz’s own terminology, his band’s oysters are fresh, but there aren’t many pearls. C