COUNTING CROWS, RECOVERING THE SATELLITES, 1996
Today is my former grad school roommate and awesome friend Tim's 40th birthday. Because he now lives in Asheville, NC, I rarely get to see him. Because he also has four kids, all under eight years old, I also rarely get to talk to him. When I do, our conversations sound a lot like this; "So, yeah-- things are good. My class is (DO NOT PUT THAT IN THE DOG! HE DOES NOT LIKE THAT!) Sorry. My class is reading (THAT IS NOT FOOD! DO NOT PUT THAT BACK IN YOUR MOUTH!) Sorry. My class is reading (sound of minor explosion. OK. OK. EVERYONE JUST REMAIN CALM. THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER IS UNDER THE SINK JUST LIKE LAST TIME.) Hey, dude. I'll call you right back."
I also am totally disorganized and perhaps a little cheap, so he has no present arriving today for him, (and I'm not even exactly sure that it's today. It might be tomorrow.) But I know what it's like to turn 40, and even though he's a totally well-adjusted youthful guy like me, the day I turned 40, I struggled. I had the urge to get out the old Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts and crank some Men At Work.
So, as a lame present, I'm making this blog about one of his favorite songs, and a tune indelibly linked to our friendship.
Full disclosure: the Crows are locals, and I've played and worked with three members of the band, so there's a chance that I don't have critical distance here. They are seriously good guys and damn fine musicians. How about this? I think there are too many ballads on their new album. There. I said it. See? I'm not sucking up here.
I've always had a theory that, among serious music fans, there are two kinds of music listeners (with gradations in between). The first is captured first and always by the vocal and its melody. For those folks, that is always what matters. They might not even notice the backing track at first. The other group is almost the opposite. For them, it's the sound of the band that matters first. They might not notice the vocal right away, and will find their attention divided throughout the song between the melody and the backing track. If you want to know which listener you are, answer this simple question, and you'll know definitively:
Which Counting Crows album do you prefer:
1) August And Everything After (Round Here, Mr. Jones, Rain King)
2) Recovering The Satellites (Daylight Fading, A Long December)
If you answer #1, you're a vocal/melody person. If you answer #2, you're a sound/band person.
I skew way towards option #2. I love that first album, but I think Recovering The Satellites is one of the best records of the 90s, and this song is my favorite moment on it. August is a song record, basically fantastic demos fleshed out in a series of grueling rehearsals. It feels very much like a band (successfully) trying to make a grand statement. It's impeccable. The second record sounds like a band letting it rip, trying out random arrangements, letting things swell and stretch and be imperfect. It's lovable. Ideally, a great band is capable of both.
I first heard this song at a Crows show at the Fillmore in 1996, when they played all of Satellites before it had been released at a special, quickly-announced show. They played for over two hours, and most of the set was all new, unknown material. It was a really interesting way to fall in love with a new set of tunes-- you almost never have that opportunity anymore. I went with a vocals first gal, and she had a rough time. She didn't like not knowing the songs, and when Duritz sang the songs off of the first album, he altered all of the melodies, to her great consternation. "Why won't he sing the song? I hate that!" Until she complained to me, it hadn't occurred to me to be bothered by it. To me, it was obvious that Duritz was thinking of himself as the band's seventh instrument that night, and he was improvising and looking for a new part like everyone else. That night was all about the monolithic, powerful roar that the band had tapped into. I've seen the Crows multiple times since then, but I've never seen them blow a house down like they did that night. That night, they deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as their influences. (See? More criticism. This blog has nothing if not integrity.)
Two years later, and Tim and I are in Oxford for the summer for grad school. We're in an intensive James Joyce class, and I'm writing a paper on madness in Shakespeare's later plays. Heady stuff. About three weeks in, there was a giant CD and record fair in the town hall, and we went and were blown away. There were thousands of bootlegs for sale, stuff we've never seen before, and a bunch of new releases that we had been unaware of with our noses in crazy difficult books. One of the things we bought was the live Crows album that was half an MTV Live show and half a VH-1 live show.
(Side note-- you can tell so much about music and its marketing in 1997 from this live album. Disc One-- "Hey kids! You like that rock n roll music with the guitars and the Ooh la las, huh? Then check out Counting Crows all loud and happy on MTV!" Disc Two-- "Hey, aging rockers! Like your music acoustic and slowed down and a little cappucinoed? Then check out Counting Crows on VH-1 Storytellers!" "Hey, America! Confused where you fit demographically? Just buy this, pick your Counting Crows, and you can figure it out for youself!" "Hey band! Want to see how we envision your entire career arc summed up in one album? Here ya go!")
We got back to the apartment and put on "Angels Of The SIlences." After thirty seconds, it was clear that it was going to be Tim's Song Of The Summer. For the next month, every time I went to grab him from his room for class or dinner, he had it blaring.
I don't blame him. I had done the same thing two years before. I bought Satellites as a double album vinyl, an old school, 60 minute London Calling-style double, and I put on side one and was immediately hooked. It's a fantastic sounding record, all warm, distorted tones, deep drums, piercing solos and thoughtful arrangements. "Catapult," the first track, is a killer opener, and just as you're recovering, "Angels" comes fading up in a roar of feedback. It's the Crows' most aggressive number, and they are surprisingly authentic as a forceful band. It's recorded so hot that it sometimes sounds like it's going to distort, but it's also completely under control. The guitar solo is one of my favorites-- it's crafted and written, but it's played loosely and spontaneously.
The lyric is Duritz at his inscrutable best and least maudlin. Its full of evocative lines that you can make mean what they need to mean to you. I love the chorus, in which he finds rhymes mid-line and breaks many conventions about how to put a hook together:
Waiting for you
All my sins I said that
I would pay for them if I could
Come back to you
All my innocence is
Wasted on the dead and dreaming
There's no rhyme scheme here, but the half rhyme "sins" and "cence" hold it all together. Moreover, almost all choruses are two or four lines long; here, we have two groups of three. It's inventive and unconventional without sacrificing any of the appeal. Whenever a band can pull that off, it's totally worth celebrating.
FInally, what an ending!! From 2:22 to the end, it's exciting as hell-- there's the band coming back in with one guitar not even bothering to hit a chord, the fake ending, and when Duritz starts screaming "I'm gone!!" and the drums dig in even harder, my steering wheel is in mortal jeopardy. It's a good old-fashioned fist-pumping rock moment.
So happy birthday, Tim! Go get yourself a pint and scream along. And don't worry, man-- 40 is the new 37.