Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

Counting Crows

Geffen Records, 2008

http://www.countingcrows.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/30/2008

Someday, Counting Crows will make an uncomplicated album.

Yeah, right. And pigs will fly, and George W. Bush will admit a mistake.

It could happen -- theoretically, at least -- but it’s pretty damned unlikely. The Crows had made four studio albums coming into 2008, and every one of them has contained moments of transcendent musical brilliance, exceptional songwriting supported by an killer ensemble that handles loud and quiet and loose and tight with equal aplomb. And yet each album, like a diamond, has been somehow flawed.

Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings keeps the string going. It’s perhaps the band’s most ambitious disc, a carefully shaped and focused concept album about dissolution and hope. And, like its predecessors, it too wears its flaws with pride, like the painter with a splotch of purple still on his cheek when the gallery doors open.

The disc itself is made up to look like an LP, and the old-school vibe is purposeful; this is not just a random collection of songs, this is an ALBUM, 14 interconnected songs telling a single multi-layered story. The first six (Saturday Nights) are big, loud rock numbers produced by Gil Norton, who also produced their previous big, loud rock record, 1996’s Recovering The Satellites. The second eight (Sunday Mornings) are mostly quieter and more inwardly focused numbers produced by Brian Deck (a raft of indie bands including Modest Mouse), with exception of album closer “Come Around,” another upbeat number from the Norton sessions.

Hard-rocking opener “1492” establishes the mood immediately with a head-spinning salvo of street-side vignettes portraying a character in a desperate downward spiral of debauchery and disillusion. “I am the king of everything / I am the king of nothing” bellows Duritz in a voice nearly unhinged with despair as the band powers forward into the stormy night ahead.

The similarly reckless “Hanging Tree” accelerates the disorientation of “this dizzy life of mine” before “Los Angeles” brings another of the group’s wonderful Band pastiches, offering the lead character a breather while “I’m just trying to make some sense / Outta me.” Despite a rather sassy, loose-limbed closing, a night on the streets of LA doesn’t solve the problem, which leads you into a trilogy of widening gyres and centers that do not hold.

“Sundays” has a rather sweet Motown bells-and-snare chorus, but its folk-funk verses are a rolling narrative of lost faith in everything around him as Duritz proclaims “I don’t believe in Sundays / I don’t believe in anything.” “Insignificant” is a feverish jangle-rock cry, an anguished plea to an indifferent universe that leads directly into the surrealistic orgy of self-destruction that is the careening my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Saturday Night closer “Cowboys.” The narrator hallucinates his way through a harrowing night of paranoia and dislocation in which he realizes his last connection with the world has been cut: “She said I wouldn’t feel a thing but I can feel… This is a list of what I should’ve been but I’m not… She says she doesn’t love me like -- like she’s acting… Oh, I will make you look at me / Or I am not anything.”

The song closes with a blistering riff that bleeds into feedback that reverberates all the way to the end of the fade. Shivers? You better believe it.

Sunday Mornings opens with the gentle, lilting “Washington Square” and the character’s first shot at redemption -- reinvention. “And nobody knows me / My friends and my family / Are as far from this city / As Washington Square.” Charlie Gillingham’s piano anchors this very pretty acoustic tune that kicks off a string of them.

And then things get fuzzier. Certainly, the versatility offered by a lineup featuring three guitarists (David Bryson, Dan Vickery and David Immergluck) and all-star piano and keyboard man Gillingham allows them pull off beautiful touches like the gorgeous banjo-acoustic-piano interplay on the appropriately dreamy “When I Dream Of Michaelangelo.”

But despite Sunday Mornings’ strong moments, it also features a pair of languid, surprisingly forgettable tunes in the similarly-titled “On Almost Any Sunday Morning” and “On A Tuesday Morning In Amsterdam.” One suspects the latter is this album’s “Holiday In Spain,” a tune that’s obviously personally meaningful to Duritz -- why else include it on their Greatest Hits package – but doesn’t click with me at all. “Anyone But You” is more inventive -- rather Beatlesque in its psychedelic intersecting-harmonies fadeout -- but doesn’t feel like it really hangs together that well in the end. Same goes for the atmospheric yet maddeningly obscure “Le Ballet D’Or.” In a word: huh?

Ah, but -- there’s just always a catch, isn’t there? -- Sunday Mornings does include at least two absolutely stellar tunes. “You Can’t Count On Me” is a pretty melody dressing up one of the most brutal lyrics Duritz has ever let out into the world. “But all this pain gets me high / And I get off and you know why / If you think you need to go / If you wanted to be free / There’s one thing you need to know / And that’s that you can’t count on me.”

And closer “Come Around” -- as previously noted, the only second-half cut taken from the Saturday Nights sessions -- is a similarly nasty-yet-upbeat tune that suggests even the harshest breakups leave some thread of connection between people, even if it’s mostly expressed in the form of bitterness and scorn.

Those two tunes are in fact a kind of microcosm of the record; this album is nothing if not difficult. Its uptempo songs are almost unbearably sad and its downbeat ones offer only hints of some future redemption. The melancholy but ultimately uplifting poetry of past masterpieces like “A Murder Of One” or “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” has been replaced by a sense of loneliness and disintegration that’s nearly oppressive.

Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is another rough diamond from Duritz and the Crows, an album that doesn’t let the listener off the hook emotionally for a minute, that demands much and that wears both its greatness and its flaws proudly on its sleeve. But maybe, in the end, that’s just the way they wanted it.

Rating: A-

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© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Geffen Records, and is used for informational purposes only.