When one of your favourite bands announce their new album is coming out soon, there’s that wonderful flutter of excitement in your stomach. But sometimes they follow that up with those dreaded words ‘covers album’ and the fluttering butterflies plummet to the ground. Can Underwater Sunshine by Counting Crows prove that there can be a point to an album of other people’s songs?
The reason some Crows fans might feel aggrieved at this new covers album is that it’s only the second new studio release from the band in the last decade, so surely they’ve managed to write enough good songs in that time to bring out their own material? Hopefully that’s the case and another new album isn’t far away, but that doesn’t mean we should discount this one.
One glance at the liner notes to Underwater Sunshine and it’s obvious that it’s not a cheap cash-in or contractual obligation, it’s more of a labour of love. For a start, it’s their first independent release, so there’s no record company pressure to come up with fresh product, and no-one reading Adam Duritz’s words could miss the reason why they decided to make a record like this.
He writes of the early days of Counting Crows and all the bands they used to go and see, and his enthusiasm for those bands and their music is obvious and even two decades of being in the business hasn’t dimmed his ability to be a music geek. Playing other people’s songs isn’t about making a quick and easy buck, it’s about paying tribute to inspirations and giving the oxygen of publicity to less famous acts.
Hence the tracklist takes in obvious cuts by Bob Dylan, The Faces and Gram Parsons, but also Kasey Anderson, The Romany Rye and Coby Brown. The idea seems to be to bring their fans’ attention to music old and new that they might like, so that they go away from it wanting to hear more. It’s like the scene from High Fidelity where John Cusack plays Dry The Rain by Beta Band in his music shop and predicts how many copies he’ll sell of The Three EPs.
You can certainly guess that Kasey Anderson will be getting a few more downloads of his albums once Underwater Sunshine gets released, as his Like Teenage Gravity is the standout track. Certainly I’ll be investigating his music, so there’s job done for Duritz and Co. Well, almost, because this is a covers album, not a mixtape, after all, so it has to function as a Counting Crows album first and foremost.
Luckily it does that, and hangs together much more cohesively than their last proper release, Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings. The material has all been chosen well and fits into a general mellow, slightly country-rock sound that fits them like a glove. Some of the tracks have even been done by them before as bonus material on Hard Candy, so are instantly familiar, not that You Ain’t Going Nowhere could ever sound unfamiliar.
For me, the only mis-step is the slightly vapid Coming Around by the entirely vapid Travis. It’s pretty much just a few minutes of emptiness, and Duritz’s vocals struggle slightly with the high-pitched chorus. That’s the danger of covers albums, that you’ll pick a song you like that some of your fans won’t because they don’t like the original. But that’s what music tastes are all about, and you wouldn’t expect even your favourite band to only like the music that you like. It’s a minor quibble, and I’d say that it’s at least better than the original
Covers albums are a tricky business and not every Counting Crows fan will welcome Underwater Sunshine because of that, but their reasons for making it are worthwhile and their choice of material is almost impeccable. It’s introduced me to a lot of interesting artists and will do the same for most people, but most importantly of all, it’s a really good Counting Crows album. And you can’t ask for any more than that.
There can't really be any question over whether Chris Rea is cool. He's not, and never will be. But performances like this, and his recent incredible run of blues albums show that he doesn't need to be cool to make truly great music and put on fantastic live shows.