In the "music matters" climate of 1994, an unrelenting pop band like the Counting Crows still had to lead with a song like "Round Here." Because "Mr. Jones" has entered the American pop canon--a staple at every cover band show, or frathouse party, or karaoke outing--it's easy to forget that the first single for the Crows was actually the long, sleepy, less-accessible but more Serious "Round Here."
Counting Crows - Round Here.mp3
After all, everything on radio was Serious, and Moody, and Important, and sounded like grunge. The Counting Crows in no way sounded like grunge, so they had to be introduced as still Serious and Important, albeit sonically different. As long as they were "about something" they could still sound different. So "Round Here" paved the way for the fun and easy pop of "Mr. Jones."
Adam Duritz spent a chunk of his twenties in bed, suffering from debilitating psychological illness and unable to move his life forward. Despite his obvious gifts as a writer and vocalist, music never became more than an avocation due to the serious problems he faced daily.
While experimenting with different sets of San Francisco musicians, Duritz began finding his voice as a songwriter. In the midst of his experimental, jammy, pop incarnation The Himalayans, Duritz wrote "Round Here." By the time the song as we know it reached conception, Duritz had focused on a new band with some of SanFran's most heralded local musicians. The band was called the Counting Crows. The rest we know...
Obviously "Round Here" hit because it's catchy, and the performances are great, and it was wisely marketed to a moody early 90's alt-rock crowd desperate for more "smart pop." I think its greatest attribute, however, is the Sound of Urgency.
Some of the best songs ever written exist because they simply had to come out. Some folks are talented, and some folks cite inspiration, but rarely are extraordinary talent and divine inspiration married perfectly. These are the songs that sound desperate and fiercely urgent, and as though they arrived fully formed. The performances are electric because the performer feels as though everything is at stake; the lyrics are often transcendent because a gifted writer has somehow found a way to say everything at once. While R.E.M.'s catalog is full of great songs, only "Losing My Religion" has the Sound of Urgency. I'd argue that Pearl Jam's "State of Love and Trust" typefies this, too. "Like a Rolling Stone" might be the quintessential example. It's no coincidence, in fact, that often these songs often break the artist to a newer, wider audience.
In the early 90's, Adam Duritz was fighting a daily battle with himself and his acquaintances in a small town he didn't think he could possibly get out of, struggling with crippling depression, the daily frustrations of his surroundings, and trying to reconcile all of these issues with his sizeable yet self-isolating talents. And then, at once:
Step out the front door like a ghost into a fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white/And in between the moon and you, angels get a better view of the crumbling differernce between wrong and right...
"Round Here" is the sound of a breaking point. The song builds effortlessly to a climax or, more specifically, the ledge Maria waits to jump from. Duritz's hopeless thought that, "she must be tired of something," is an exquisitely well-earned and moving breaking point. Everything in the song has built to this point, and the payoff is desperate, gorgeous, transcendent. It's as fine a musical moment as anyone achieved in the 90's, and certainly the Crows' finest hour.
Say what you want about the Counting Crows--and Adam Duritz--now (and I have), but "Round Here" is a moment above criticism. Some of Duritz's trademarks (unstructured melody, lyrical incontinence, steam-of-consciousness writing, etc.) that work so incredibly well in "Round Here" now betray his talents in the new material. The devices that used to serve the songs well now hold them back. The reason I hate Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings so much is because I can still listen to "Round Here" and wonder, "seriously, what the hell happened?"
The 2000's did, unfortunately. In the meantime, at least we got the Crows in all their 90's, Serious, Important, Powerpop glory as a reference of good times--and better music--long since passed.
And, for when we're at a fratparty, we've Mr. Jones, too.
Under the gun,