My sister turns 16 today. She’s been turning 16 for the past 15 years, in my mind, even though I get older (I’ve been 30 for three at this point). It’s what having a younger sibling does to us; they always remain little in our minds. So what would this quest be like without bringing her in for a recommendation? For her, the answer was simple: “Counting Crows.” They’ve been her favorite band for years. It was Emily who first fell in love with “Mr. Jones,” Emily who gave my copy of August and Everything After its first proper listen, Emily who convinced my mother to let us go see the band at Lupo’s, our local concert venue. It was the first time I’d even been there, despite lusting after many shows in that era. That night, my first in a real rock club, not just a theatre or arena, everything crackled. It felt like where I belonged, even though I could have been no more than 15 at the time. When I remember that old building, I remember it for that promise and excitement, not for the dingy couches and scuffed surfaces. It doesn’t hurt that the band were toward the end of supporting their second album (still their best) and in great form (also still the best of the times I’ve seen them).
And yet, were there even any Counting Crows albums I hadn’t heard? I’d definitely ignored their handful of live albums, but those wouldn’t have passed the test (my sister, for her part, can tell you what ad-libs Adam Duritz will add to “Round Here” within about 5 notes). I was also skeptical that I wanted to go for their relatively recent cover album. As for other choices? Well, my sister is a damn savant about finding amazing albums that I’ve bought and ignored, but she’s rarely one to discover whole new artists. She, of course, had the solution: Somewhere Under Wonderland, conveniently released back in 2014 to just about zero fanfare. She was going to bring it along last time she came home, but we never got to get together that weekend, so I just saved it until today. You’ve been spared the sibling commentary, and you’re welcome.
Counting Crows are, admittedly, one of the last bands I’d expect to start an album with what sounds like a New Orleans street performer. Outside of this, though, “Palisades Park” isn’t too much of a surprise. It starts and stops, going from contemplative piano tune to roadhouse rocker, and those stops are not smooth. They’re full stops. Still, it’s comforting that even on a somewhat cobbled together, lengthy opening statement, the band still does what it does well, from the moody storytelling to the general sound. It’s the musical equivalent of when TV shows do the “previously on…” montage. For those of you who might have been asleep since Hard Candy, this is what 12 years prior sounded like. It’s good music competently done, and that’s enough to earn it a highlight.
That tends to be the theme on Somewhere Under Wonderland: it proves the band still has something to say and can still do it without sounding forced. That they put on their rock pants so often for a 9 song collection is notable, though:“Elvis Went to Hollywood” is about as weird a track as they’ve produced, straightforward though the music is, and the one-two punch of “Earthquake Driver” and “Dislocation” is perhaps as much serious crunch as the band have strung together at one time. The band has always had more grit than we think of given their radio singles, of course, but even so it’s usually the exception and not the rule that brings those tracks to life. Here, that Americana guitar stomp is what sustains the album: there’s even a honky-tonk country feel to “Cover Up the Sun,” and I won’t lie, the band could take that mantle if they wanted, because it’s really passable as that genre. This is fine: quieter tracks like “God of Ocean Tides” aren’t as layered as similar tracks would have been back in earlier days, and so have less payoff. They feel more like an Adam Duritz solo album might sound. It’s a little disorienting, even if Counting Crows are inherently always going to be Adam’s voice first and foremost. The brooding, introspective track is what they buttered their bread with, and it’s a rare beast here. Among the most classic sounds here is “John Appleseed’s Lament,” with “Mrs. Potter” phrasing and “Have You Seen Me Lately” beats, and even here there’s squealing slides coming down the guitar neck. Sum total, we have only 1/3 of the tracks here taking the downtempo option. Less, if we consider half of “Palisades Park.”
The final of those slower tracks, “Possibility Days,” seems to be the closest to those old hits like “A Long December,” but it also shows a wider trend in Wonderland. The song still doesn’t brood tonally, but it also progresses as a stream of emotions instead of having the same sorts of strong structures as previous albums. And maybe that’s why this album is what it is: a lot of these songs have verses that are more concerned with getting words out than creating interesting melodies with them. Maybe, after six years between albums, and another six to get to the prior, the band felt the need to just let something out. It may have been a catharsis, a cleansing moment and a spontaneous burst, to commit something to record. That such an effort could be strong, if not essential, is a credit to a much maligned and misunderstood band.