Or, "The Counting Crows Release a Record, and Tell Me Everything I Need to Know"
If you started 2008 with hope, as I did, for the future of popular music, the last few months have been the rest of times and the worst of times. The North Mississippi All-Stars Hernando was due in January...things were looking up. That record was largely disappointing, but the Black Crowes had a record coming out.
Things were looking up.
So I waited for the new Black Crowes. It didn't blow my hair back, so I marked REM's release on the calendar.
Things were looking up.
Then, Accelerate garnered rapturous critical acclaim...until someone pointed out that we've read this review before. Anyway, SXSW was forthcoming.
Things were looking up.
I waited for the reports, which yielded few, if any, revelations about the state of the union, and more than enough Vampire Weekend backlash to make me think that, thankfully, everyone else gets the joke and, no, they don't really think it's that funny either. Still, the Black Keys were releasing a record with Danger Mouse.
Things were looking up.
Which brings us to the present and, to be fair, not everything has been bad. MGMT's legitimately great single "Time to Pretend" is getting its due, at least overseas. The Black Keys collaboration is a welcome surprise. SNL finally lurched into 2003 and booked My Morning Jacket (May 10!). And, just recently, a dog walked right up to Natalie Portman on the street and showed her what he thought of Garden State. Things looking up, indeed!
Enter the Counting Crows, fresh off a mind-boggling six-year hiatus, armed with fourteen songs of pop musical glory and wonderment, guaranteed to deliver that soundtrack-to-your-summer gem, brimming with infectious hooks, glistening production, and wistful lyricism, forcing you to love them. After all, Hard Candy was nothing if not an endearing, accessible pop record, with moments of inspired brilliance ("Up All Night" remains one of their greatest songs). Sure, parts were hokey (their "Big Yellow Taxi" cover comes to mind). Sure, parts were mindless ("American Girls" was, at the time, their weakest single to date). But it was, ultimately, a satisfactory statement in defense of pop rock at a time when pop was a four-letter word.
Six years, some Shrek appearances, and an entire Ryan Adams career later, the Counting Crows released Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings, and pre-press sounded great: "An album in two sides, one rollicking, one mellow, one rocking, one rolling, one side narrating mistakes made, one reflecting on them. Saturday nights, Sunday mornings. Alright, I'll go with it." I'm anticipating that, in the best of all possible worlds, this means a record of B+ "Angels of the Silences" and "Holiday in Spains," respectively. But, you know, new. If nothing else, it'll be fun, catchy, fairly consistent, and occasionally interesting. And the band will sound great. This much I know. I know this. Without question, I know this.
But I didn't know this. First, the Crows released "1492," the opening single, in advance. I downloaded it. I hit play. I hit pause. I paced around a little bit. I hit play again. Deep breaths. I hit stop. I closed my laptop. I left the house for a little bit. No way that just happened. No way this is their single after a six-year sabbatical. That shouldn't have been their first single after a six-day sabbatical.
Then I heard they had released "When I Dream of Michelangelo," off the record's second half. This was meant to take me down a notch. I strapped in, thinking, "that's odd, the song's title is a lyric from 'Angels of the Silences,' like, twelve years ago." Turns out that song's title is a lyric from "Angles of the Silences," like, twelve years ago, and turns out this song says somehow less than nothing about what has already been said in that first song twelve years ago. This wasn't the sound of artistic self-referentiality; this was the sound of someone completely out of ideas.
Actually, that's not true. There are ideas here. But nothing close to a good one. For example:
1) "The lead guitarist is awesome. Let's tell him to play lead-ins like he's never seen a guitar before. Let's ask him to make it as cacophonous as possible. It'll be, uh, interesting?"
2) "Hi, I'm a gifted singer. Maybe I should groan a lot. Maybe that'll make the track, um, emotional?"
3) "Our greatest strength is writing pop melodies. We can write gorgeous melodies all day in our sleep. We are better than pretty much every band at this. On this record, let's not do that."
4) "Hey, emo's big right now. Maybe instead of writing lyrics, let's just vent on tape. It speaks more to the heart, anyway."
Eddie Vedder and Tim Robbins reportedly watched a young singer/songwriter perform on Leno one night and Vedder remarked, "That's what diaries are for." Robbins supposedly countered, "That's what locks on diaries are for."
And what I'm trying to say is this: Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings is a colossal disappointment. It's bad in ways I find hard to believe. It's fourteen songs of condensed and abject punishment. Its failures are so uncharacteristic, its mis-steps so tragically misguided, its errors so unconscionable that I can't even accurately characterize it as a real album that went bad. It's so bad it's surreal. Half the time I listen, I wonder if the record isn't, in fact, an elaborate prank. The other half, I honestly expect to wake up from the nightmare that it is.
"You Can't Count On Me," indeed.
At least five of these songs sound like they're being written on-the-spot. Like, after six years, Duritz called everyone into the studio, they all said, "Alright Adam, what've you got," and he just started playing chords and mumbling about Michelangelo, being unfettered, radios, and girls that want to sleep with him. And they all went, "really?" And he went, "yeah, it'll be great." And they went, "I kind of hate it," and he said, "well, you haven't heard the nail-on-chalkboard arrangement I've picked out," and they said, "ohhh, okay, there's an out-of-tune guitar lick missing, I get it now...by God, Adam, you've done it again!"
By now you're probably saying, "Jesus, Milam, ain't you being a little harsh? It's not like the Crows aren't a good band. It's not like there aren't stacks of bad records at every Towers in America, waiting to be panned." But I'm only this hard on the bands that are actually capable of doing better. And in the case of Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings, from a band that gave us two of the 90's greatest records, the gap between what they're capable of and what (after six freaking years) they actually produced is so wide, so unfathomable, that it actually damages a fanbase. This is a lazy record, and an insulting record. It's the sound of a band taking its fans for granted, and that's a crime worthy of honest and brutal criticism.
Look, nobody's saying they can't still be a good band. I'm certainly not suggesting they'll never make another worthwhile record. If nothing else, their past work stands by itself and nobody can take that from them. Every band can lay a turd. Dave Grohl admitted himself that 2005's In Your Honor was mostly garbage. Pearl Jam's Riot Act was a misfire. These things happen.
But now, more than ever, we need a great pop record. Since Hard Candy, Americans have created a culture of singularity. We have never been more connected to each other, and have never felt more disconnected. It's an age of individual web-pages, personalized radio, genres and subgenres tailor-made for the person and by the person, but perhaps not for the people. One of the greatest aspects of music is its capacity for shared experience, especially when any given song is universally known and recognized. A great pop song can give all of us something in common, but fewer musicians are creating shared experience through universality. Popular music, previously a medium that bridged the gap, is actually widening it. The list of legitimate pop bands is shorter than ever, and the number of artists who transcend their niche is rapidly dwindling.
That's why, after a season's worth of disappointing releases, after an overlong winter of dreary weather and acoustic bleatings and bad melodies and dull performances, I needed the Counting Crows to step in, deliver a bouncy pop anthem, set a million toes tapping despite themselves and make things normal again. Or at least deliver that one remarkable song, like "Round Here," "Long December," "St. Robinson...," or "Up All Night." Or at least an album's-worth of gorgeous melodies. Or at least a few enjoyable hits. Or maybe some good musical performances. Or possibly one song that resonates. Or maybe just a single lyric...
Still, the new My Morning Jacket comes out in June. And, I swear, things are looking up...