Somewhere Under Wonderland

Counting Crows

Capitol, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


You know that hyper-literate cousin of yours from the big city?

The one you only see at weddings and funerals, who after a drink or two can talk you under the table about basically any subject on the face of the earth, who’s read everything ever written by Baudelaire and Kant and every other pseudo-hip intellectual in the history of Western civilization? He can recite poems by Shelley or jokes by Woody Allen, soliloquize on the finer points of the 19th century cubists or late 1970s underground punk. You sometimes wonder that his head doesn’t simply explode from all of the random information that seems to be knocking around inside it. At times his hyperactive monologues assume the velocity of some kind of hip-hop savant.

He can drive you a little bit crazy sometimes with the uniqueness of his gift, but you also pretty much have to admire the guy, because he is clearly gifted and quite brilliant in his own colorful way. It’s just that he’s best experienced in relatively small doses, and in the right mood and setting.

I don’t have a cousin like that, but every time I’ve put a new Counting Crows record on in the last ten years or so, I kind of feel that way.

In early days, Crows frontman/lyricist Adam Duritz applied his gift of gab to songs that fit snugly within the pop-rock paradigm of verses and choruses and melodies and harmonies and instrumental breaks. These days, the rest of the Crows (David Bryson, Charles Gillingham, Dan Vickery, David Immerglück, Millard Powers and Jim Bogios) are more typically overwhelmed by the sheer scope and density of his extended monologues; these aren’t songs so much as they are explosions of words and thoughts and images and ideas.

There were times listening to this album when I wanted to shout at my speakers “Dude, slow down! Give us a minute to absorb that thing you just said before you throw seven more at us! Because that one thing you said was actually pretty interesting and maybe a little bit profound, but man, you just won’t stop for a minute and let us really hear it.”

Kickoff cut “Palisades Park” is a nine minute mini-epic poem of a tune that feels at times like Beat poetry set to roots-rock, The Hold Steady fronted by the ghosts of Allen Ginsberg and young Bob Dylan. It’s genuinely sprawling, and also somehow nostalgic, carrying echoes of Born To Run-era Springsteen in its rather “Backstreets”-like narrative of young Andy chasing his fate through streets filled with characters with names like “Wild Mouse” and the “White Queens.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Like several tunes here, second song “Earthquake Driver” references California, from whence Duritz moved to New York in 2003. “Earthquake Driver” is in fact the highlight of the album, featuring a snappy acoustic funk vibe, hip-hop diction and the verbosity of a Manhattan intellectual. It’s also where Duritz makes his most direct and moving statement, crying repeatedly “I just don’t wanna go home” without explicitly defining where home is; he misses California, yes, but he’s running away from something, rather than toward any particular destination.

“Dislocation” finds the group taking full advantage of the gift of three guitarists, layering this into a considerably heavier concoction than its two predecessors. There’s a desperation to this explicitly autobiographical song, a careening loss of control heard in the vocals and guitars as Duritz essentially narrates his own diagnosis with dissociative disorder. It’s hard not to be haunted by a line like “I am fading out in stereo / I don’t remember me.”

Interest lags a bit in the middle third of this nine-song album. “God Of Ocean Tides” is a pretty, mostly acoustic tune that betrays the backyard-jam origins of most of these tunes, as outlined in the liner notes, and passes quickly in just over three minutes. “Scarecrow” turns up the rock while laboring a bit to construct a melody around another unstoppable Duritz soliloquy. “Elvis Went To Hollywood” is a muscular rocker that’s again nearly overwhelmed by Duritz’s hurricane of words, although it’s hard to argue with the sentiment that “When Elvis went to Hollywood, that’s when everything went wrong.”

Buried in Act III are a couple of album highlights. “Cover Up The Sun” takes an enjoyable detour into acoustic back-porch country rock as Duritz finds himself “Dipping into Texas as the stars are fading out” in this dusty, rollicking road song. “I stepped out the front door” opens “John Appleseed’s Lament,” referencing one of the band’s seminal tunes, “Round Here,” but this time Duritz steps out into New York City and parallels the strange joys of city life with the bitter agonies of another failed relationship over a loose, fulsome full-band arrangement. (“I call the endless sky Amelia / Because she stays with me from place to place”—yeah, that’s the stuff.) Toward the end, the wild slide guitar over rumbling drums helps this tune achieve a kind of unhinged majesty.

Closing ballad “Possibility Days” starts with just piano and voice, a late-night rumination about a couple who are struggling to connect but can’t sync up their lives, leaving the narrator to lament the possibilities foregone. Padding the tail end of this relatively concise album are a pair of acoustic demos for “Earthquake Driver” and “Scarecrow,” which are fun to hear, once. It’s interesting in an archeological sense to understand the bones of the songs, but these are simple artifacts, nothing more.

The poetry of Duritz’s lyrics and the sheer velocity of some of his character-driven narratives carry inevitable echoes of early Springsteen or Dylan. His songs are all packed to the gills with references and allusions, and yet they’re all ultimately about him; to pull that off successfully, you have to be an interesting person leading an interesting life. Thankfully, on that count, Duritz makes the cut.

Somewhere Under Wonderland marks another memorably uneven outing from Counting Crows, a rambling, shambling, occasionally brilliant and occasionally infuriating adventure at the circus that lives inside Adam Duritz’s head. Funny thing is, even as the popcorn starts to go stale, I’m ready to queue up for another ticket.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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