By David Browne
Updated February 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Counting Crows’ ”Mr. Jones,” the rising hit from this San Francisco band, is one of those rare records that makes your jaw drop open and your mouth blurt out, ”Who is that?”-but not necessarily for the best reasons. The song’s opening jangle of guitar chords recalls every R.E.M.-clone band of the last decade, but much more head-turning is that voice. Could it be a newly invigorated Van Morrison? No, it’s singer Adam Duritz, who seems to have appropriated not only Morrison’s gravelly bleat but also his elliptical lyrics. (”So come dance this silence down through the morning.” Huh?) Toss in the easy-moshing groove of any random 10,000 Maniacs song and a couple of references to Bob Dylan (including the song’s title, which is taken from the bard’s ”Ballad of a Thin Man”), and you have a song that sounds genetically assembled to appeal to as many different generations of white rock fans as possible. The band even looks prefabricated, based on the ”Mr. Jones” video and its stint last month on Saturday Night Live-both factors that have made its debut album, last fall’s August and Everything After (DGC), suddenly leap up the charts. Duritz has the dreadlocks of a hippie rapper and the baggy shirt of an ersatz grunge kid; on SNL he topped it off with one of those sock hats associated with the rave world. And his utterly anonymous bandmates have the studied, college-student earnestness of yuppie-rocker bands like the Maniacs. Say what you will about a young-old-fart group like Spin Doctors: They at least look as if they’d risen out of years in beer-encrusted bars and dives. Counting Crows seem as if they’d risen out of a marketing meeting at Geffen Records. It’s bad enough that such blatant calculation has gone into the band’s look. Even worse is the album itself. Sluggish and meandering, with tastefully correct organs and mandolins, the songs are mostly the sort of plodding, earnest ”rock music” usually made by men twice their age. Everything about the music sounds drearily familiar: here a guitar lick of the sort that U2’s the Edge plays during arena sound checks, there a melody (”Rain King”) that is R.E.M.’s ”I Believe” sideways, here a chorus (in ”Time and Time Again”) with the creaky beauty of an old Band song. In its defense, ”Mr. Jones” does have a beat, although you would be hard-pressed to dance to it. Surely it isn’t a crime to recycle rock licks; if it were, Keith Richards would be doing hard time. Duritz, though, is a main offender. Even on ”Time and Time Again,” the album’s most striking melody, he ruins the mood by resorting to a weak imitation of Van Morrison’s emotive wail. (Tellingly, when Morrison himself was a no-show at last year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Duritz and Counting Crows sang ”Caravan” in his place.) In purely technical terms, his vocal resemblance to Morrison-and, at times, to the great ’50s and ’60s pop singer Dion during his folksinger era-is impressive, yet it’s also grating. And his tortured-soul lyrics-”Love is a ghost train rumbling through the darkness”-are laughable attempts at rock- lyrics-as-poetry. The last straw is ”A Murder of One,” in which he tries to needle the woman lying next to him to leave her current beau. Okay, maybe Duritz is merely being protective of her-but what self-respecting woman would want to be with a new man who calls her ”kitten” and admonishes her with lines like ”All your life is such a shame/All your love is just a dream”? Duritz’s jerkiness aside, Counting Crows have been lumped in with neo- classic rockers like Blind Melon and the Black Crowes. But Counting Crows’ nostalgia is not for rock of the ’60s or ’70s, but for its ’80s incarnation- that overly refined white-guy roots rock promulgated by everyone from Los Lobos to John Mellencamp to lesser bands like the Bodeans. As an American reaction against the brashly disposable British Invasion pop of Culture Club and Eurythmics, roots rock had its place and time, and resulted in any number of albums (from Mellencamp’s Scarecrow to Rank and File’s Sundown) that still sound as hungry and hopeful as ever. But the genre has also proven to be an artistic dead end. Look where it got Los Lobos: With each successive record, they’ve grown so staid that it’s hard to remember they were once the thinking- man’s party band. In Lobos’ defense, at least it took them a half dozen albums, many of them terrific, to get there; Counting Crows, in keeping with the accelerated pace of today’s pop scene, required only one. ”Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hangs on everybody,” Duritz sings on ”Perfect Blue Buildings,” ”there’s a dead man trying to get out.” There’s a dead man here all right, but it has nothing to do with love and sweat, and plenty to do with dust and decay. D