This Desert Life

Counting Crows

Geffen Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


"If you've never stared off into the distance then your life is a shame." - Adam Duritz

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One of the first things you learn about poets is that precious few ever make a living at it. The ones well-off enough to afford to treat it as more than an after-hours discipline rarely have the empathy or subtlety or obsessive drive to create that's required to excel at it. The ones who have those traits but lack financial backing and/or a gift for self-promotion generally starve in obscurity.

So right there, without even touching the music, we can establish that Adam Duritz is something special.

* * *

"Beginning to believe in the disappearing nature of the people we have been."

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One of the big questions heading into studio album number three for Counting Crows was: is this really a band, or is it just Adam Duritz and Those Other Guys Playing the Instruments? He's written the lyrics to every song they've released, and written or co-written the music to every one as well -- even the band's name is a quote from his lyrics.

The answer to this question lies in looking at the musical progression evident in the band's trio of albums to date. The first album featured amazing lyrics, but sometimes suffered from underdeveloped arrangements and a sense of self-imposed pressure to make each song feel "important."

Their sophomore try, 1997's Recovering The Satellites, had a fuller, richer sound thanks mostly to the contributions of founding keyboard player Charlie Gillingham, added guitarist Dan Vickery and new drummer Ben Mize. Still, the primary focus remained on Duritz's words and instantly recognizable vocal style.

With This Desert Life, Counting Crows has now officially become a band, in the sense of a fully collaborative musical unit. Yes, Duritz supplies the voice, and his poetry is as potent as ever, but the band, individually and collectively, plays a significantly larger role here than on August. The complex arrangements of songs like "All My Friends" and "High Life" are opened up by the band's loose, confident approach to them. If Duritz alone carried echoes of a young Dylan, with this third album, Counting Crows carries echoes of Dylan in his heyday with The Band.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

* * *

"I'm going down to Hollywood

They're going to make a movie from the things that they find crawling round my brain"

* * *

The songs continue Duritz's review of existence as seen through the eyes of a series of dreamers and misfits, loners and slackers living on the fringes, sorting through the debris of their lives looking for some meaningful spark they can cling to. The autobiographical references are clear in songs like "High Life" and "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," but more and more often Duritz appears to be cataloguing a state of mind rather than his own life. This tends to make the narratives a little less searing but more universal than on the band's first two discs.

* * *

"I am covered in skin

No one gets to come in

Pull me out from inside

I am folded and unfolded and unfolding"

* * *

The music builds off of the band's classic rock roots more skillfully than ever, thanks particularly to Gillingham's very effective use of the Hammond B-3 and mellotron. For spice, they throw in sitar on "Amy Hits The Atmosphere" and well-arranged strings on three or four tracks.

The key, though, it that the band has learned to work so much better as an ensemble. The precise playing on the closing "St. Robinson And His Cadillac Dream" is almost ear candy, every note is so dead-on, yet it's miles away from being "pop." Mandolin, keys and a keening electric guitar play off each other, the rhythm section holds a beat here and there to punctuate specific lines, the harmonies layer nicely in the right places… yet it all feels organic, as if it was recorded live on the first take.

* * *

"Carrie's down in her basement all toes shoes and twinned

With the girl in the mirror who spins when she spins

From where you think you'll end up to the state that you're in

Your reflection approaches and then recedes again"

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It's like champagne and caviar, or ketchup and fries… a natural, potent match… Duritz's intense lyrical flights, grounded in skillfully down-to-earth music.

* * *

"There's a hole in the ceiling through which I fell

There's a girl in the basement coming out of her shell

And there are people who will say that they knew me so well…

I may not go to heaven

I hope you go to hell"

* * *

The songs are rarely easy to listen to. The melodies on tunes like "Hanginaround," "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" and the Byrds-influenced "Four Days" are stronger than ever, but the lyrics are often dense and dark, full of damaged people searching for paths that will take them closer to some faraway light. Taken as a whole it's a lot like Faulkner, really -- not exactly "light reading," but you finish feeling like it's been time well spent on a worthy piece of art.

* * *

"If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts"

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Finally, the hidden bonus track is a welcome break from this heaviness, a bunch of in-studio goofiness wrapped around a tasty four-minute track (probably titled "Kid Thing") that captures the musical flavor of early '70s Stones at least as well as Mick and company have in the last 25 years. It reminds you forcefully that, though its voice is the voice of a poet, this is a rock and roll band - and, now more than ever, a damned good one.

Rating: A-

User Rating: B-


© 1999 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.