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The September Flood Part One

In Which the Canadians Kick Our Asses

9/10/14

I’m staring at a rising tide of important new records, one that isn’t going to recede until the frost is on the pumpkin, as Frank Zappa used to say. So there’s nothing for it except to get reviewing. Thanks for your patience last week as I indulged my inner (and, let’s be honest, outer) Whovian. I quite liked this week’s episode, “Robot of Sherwood” – it gave me a lot more perspective on Capaldi’s Doctor, and the journey I expect he will go down – and while I could spend another thousand words talking about it, I won’t. You’re welcome.

Now, on with reviews of new music, before it drowns me.

* * * * *

Counting Crows are the sound of college to me.

I went to a small Catholic school outside Portland, Maine from 1992 to 1996. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to southern Maine, but the air has a particular feel to it, sort of cold and pure. There’s a particular smell too, and a sensation of that air on your skin that I haven’t found anywhere else. And though there are plenty of bands that defined my college experience – Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, others of that ilk – there is no band that brings back all of those sensory experiences like Counting Crows.

August and Everything After was required listening among people my age in 1993 (and the years following), and its influence was everywhere. The image of Adam Duritz, dreadlocked poet, shimmying his way through the “Mr. Jones” video is forever emblazoned on the minds of everyone within spitting distance of my age. It’s hard to understate the ubiquity of that record, and luckily, it’s also hard to hate it. As a calling card for a literate new band, they couldn’t have done better. Many, in fact, still consider it their best, although I disagree – I like 1996’s Recovering the Satellites and 1999’s This Desert Life even more.

But the fact remains that for a certain segment of their audience, Counting Crows will never top their debut, and they may as well not even try. Those people may end up enjoying Somewhere Under Wonderland, the Crows’ sixth album of original tunes, more than I did. This is the first Crows record that sounds, to me, like they’ve accepted the legacy of August and Everything After and have become content to live in its shadow. It’s still hard not to like them, but it’s also hard to ignore the lack of original ideas and powerful songs on this album.

Somewhere Under Wonderland arrives six years after Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, a record that found the band shaking things up remarkably well. In the ensuing years, they’ve released three live albums and a covers record, a sure sign that the inspiration just hasn’t been there. Wonderland bears that out – this is the sound of a very good band playing average, uninspiring songs very well. These nine tunes fly by in about 40 minutes, and very few of them will leave a mark, let alone the indelible impact of which this band is capable.

Wonderland begins with its most ambitious misfire, the eight-minute “Palisades Park.” It takes its time springing to life, and its first four minutes are pretty terrific, but after that, it just starts meandering until it putters to a close. I don’t need a prog-rock epic from Counting Crows, but I would like the sense that their songs are more than just chords following Duritz from behind. Duritz, it should be said, is on top form lyrically and vocally on this record. Gone is any sense of fatigue that you may have heard on the live records – his voice is strong as ever, and his poetry remains delightfully distinctive. He tells stories, and he tells them well.

But the band this time is content to just strum behind him for unfortunately long stretches of this album. I’m starting to enjoy the simple charms of “Earthquake Driver,” “Dislocation” and “God of Ocean Tides,” but all in a row, they fade into the mist. “Scarecrow” is a step up, though it’s not a big step. I enjoy “Cover Up the Sun” a great deal – its shit-kicking barroom tumble is easily the best thing on this record – but it’s followed up by the pointlessly boring “John Appleseed’s Lament.”

I’ll confess to being moved by closer “Possibility Days,” while wishing it did more with Duritz’ impassioned vocal and dark, wonderful verse. (“The worst part of a good day is knowing it’s slipping away, that’s one more possibility day that is gone…”) Like most of Somewhere Under Wonderland, it’s content to tread water instead of really going somewhere.

The weak songwriting is doubly disappointing because the band sounds so, so good. There are seven people in Counting Crows now, and they’ve gelled into a powerful live unit. The three guitarists bring it, never stepping on each other but infusing everything with a pulsing, palpable energy. I’m not sure that energy has ever been captured on record better than it has been here. The band has such verve that while the songs are boring, the album never is. The current carries it over even the roughest patches.

I don’t think Somewhere Under Wonderland is a bad record. It’s just an unambitious one, and after six years, I expected more. Many will be perfectly happy with nine more Counting Crows songs, whatever their quality. And it is so, so good to hear this band again. If this is what they’re going to do from now on – release short, unremarkable records every six years or so – then I guess I’ll have to be content with that. Counting Crows have never been content with that, though, so it’s surprising to get that feeling from one of their efforts. They sound like they’re trying hard as ever, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I guess we’ll see in 2020.

* * * * *

No one could ever accuse Sloan of not trying hard enough.

Twenty-three years into a wonderful career, the Nova Scotian quartet keeps coming up with new ways to do what they do. I’ve been a fan since very near the beginning – I heard “Underwhelmed” in 1992, thanks to my ahead-of-the curve friend Chris L’Etoile, and bought the debut album Smeared right away. I’ve picked up every one of their subsequent 10 records as soon as I could get my grubby hands on them, and I’ve marveled at the journey they’ve undertaken. They started as My Bloody Valentine clones, moved into stripped-down college rock, then into perfectly sculpted ‘60s and ‘70s rock. Now they take from a huge catalog of influences from four decades of pop, and they remain one of the biggest and most important bands in their native Canada. (And of course, virtually unknown in the United States.)

Now they’ve come up with yet another way to shake things up. Their 11th album is called Commonwealth, and it emphasizes the way this band works – they’re all singers and songwriters, and they all write their own material before bringing it to the band. Normally, those songs are then segued all together to form an album (and to create the illusion that the band works as a unit). This time, they’ve decided to give each songwriter his own side of vinyl, creating four miniature suites, each with its own personality. These aren’t little solo albums – the full band plays on all four sides, as always. But they do neatly put a point on what each member brings to the group.

Essentially, Jay Ferguson is winsome, Chris Murphy is emotional, Patrick Pentland is ballsy and Andrew Scott is cerebral, and that’s how these suites shake down. But put them together in one package (one gloriously well-designed package, that assigns each member of the band a playing card suit), and you have one of the very best Sloan albums. You could rearrange these tunes into a more even representation of their work, and it would still be great, but sequenced like it is, Commonwealth takes you on a trip that none of their other records do, and the format allows for some experiments and sounds you’ve never heard from this band.

Guitarist Ferguson starts things off with five slices of delightful, low-key pop. The brief “We’ve Come This Far” slides into the wondrous piano-and-guitar hum-along “You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind.” Ferguson has a high, airy voice that works beautifully with material like this, and always has. He turns in a pair of delicate ballads, the Rundgren-esque “Three Sisters” and the acoustic “Neither Here Nor There,” but the highlight of his side is “Cleopatra,” one of the most relentlessly singable Ferguson songs ever. His five tunes ease you into this record, leaving you with a wide smile.

Bassist Murphy is next, and true to form, he delivers some more complex, emotionally heavy fare. His side begins with the fantastic “Carried Away,” with a soaring chorus and some thick strings. He stumbles a little lyrically on the piano-led “So Far So Good” (“Don’t be surprised when we elect another liar, did you learn nothing from five seasons of The Wire?”), but the melody is strong and solid. And he never puts a foot wrong again – in fact, his side closes with two of his strongest songs, the winningly ‘70s “Misty’s Beside Herself” and the stunningly good rocker “You Don’t Need Excuses to Be Good.” The guitar riff on that one will stay with you for hours.

Someone had to turn in the weakest side, and that someone is guitarist Patrick Pentland. He’s the balls-out rocker of the bunch, so of course three of his four songs are stripped-back guitar workouts. They’re fine – the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club overtones of “13 (Under a Bad Sign)” slip into the pure six-string excess of “Take It Easy,” and his side ends with the rollicking “Keep Swinging (Downtown),” which Pentland sings with verve. But it all falls a bit short when compared to the work of his bandmates. He does come up with one stunner, the slow, echo-drenched “What’s Inside,” which is quite unlike anything Sloan has ever done. This one brings back the My Bloody Valentine influence, and gives it a psychedelic edge.

But if you want something completely new for Sloan, check out drummer Andrew Scott’s side, a single 18-minute song called “Forty-Eight Portraits.” It could be subtitled “Andrew Scott’s Prog-Rock Nightmare” – it’s devilishly complicated, opening with three minutes of freeform piano and percussion that somehow coalesces into a superb melodic ride. Scott has always been the most thoughtful of the quartet, and here he lets loose, spinning out a dissertation on the insanity of life and the need for togetherness. The song nimbly jumps from movement to movement, all four members taking lead vocals, and it remains captivating all the way through. It even culminates with a children’s choir, and that doesn’t suck. It’s actually poignant. This is the single most ambitious song of Sloan’s catalog, and it works on every level. (It even ends with what appears to be a Battlestar Galactica reference.)

I’m not sure Scott would have even tried something like “Forty-Eight Portraits” had he not been given an entire vinyl side to play with, so from that standpoint, the Commonwealth experiment was more than worth it. The fact that the rest of the record is also splendid, and the journey as a whole one of the band’s most fulfilling, is pretty wonderful. After 23 years, Sloan can still surprise, and can still turn out a record as stunningly good as Commonwealth. Really, there are only good Sloan records and great ones. It’s so nice to have another great one.

* * * * *

Speaking of Canadian supergroups, here’s the New Pornographers.

Unlike Sloan, the leaders of the New Pornographers – A.C. Newman, Neko Case and Dan Bejar – have their own flourishing solo careers. But every few years they get together to make another testament to the apparent joy of working with each other. They’ve hit some speed bumps recently, with the sluggish Challengers and the just-OK Together. But if you were hoping against hope that the band would one day put out another thoroughly excellent slice of ornate, complex pop, well, that day is here.

The sixth New Pornographers album, Brill Bruisers, is named after the famous Brill Building, the Manhattan workshop that was home to some of the most influential pop songwriters of all time. (Big names include Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond, Laura Nyro and Phil Spector.) Newman and company don’t exactly emulate the Brill Building sound here, but they do place a huge emphasis on sweeping melodies, and they give the whole album a Spector shine. It almost sounds recorded in mono, so thick is the sound, and the waterfalls of backing vocals wash over every song. It’s a striking texture, and it complements some of the band’s best work.

There are eight New Pornographers, but the three mentioned above are the architects of the band, and the three voices you’ll hear throughout. Newman takes the songwriting lead here, penning all but the three Bejar tunes, and from the first notes of the title track, you’ll hear a renewed vigor to his compositions. The first three tracks come at you in a power-pop rush, and Bejar’s “War on the East Coast” doesn’t halt that momentum. When Newman slows things down on “Backstairs,” he does so with style – the song includes synths and a computerized voice, before exploding into a cloud of those wonderful Newman-Case harmonies. Nothing about this record was thrown together. Every nuance has been carefully arranged.

And the energy never flags. Listen to the Case spotlight “Marching Orders” – it’s a pop winner, with its oscillating keyboards and strident strum. Quick interlude “Another Drug Deal of the Heart” has a Stephin Merritt feel to it, while Bejar’s “Born With a Sound” swirls its way home. “Dancehall Domine” is a late-album gem, with its thudding, danceable beat, and “Hi-Rise” soars with its clever vocal arrangement and orchestration. Even the cover of Swan Lake’s “Spider” (written by Bejar) fits in well. By the time things end with the big beats of “You Tell Me Where,” it’s clear that they’ve pulled off their best and most consistent record since Twin Cinema.

And they’ve renewed my faith. Brill Bruisers is exactly the album the New Pornographers needed to make, and they made it at exactly the right time. It’s a complete top-down revitalization, and it’s wonderful. I’m completely on board once again. You tell me where to be, guys, and I’ll be there.

* * * * *

Ryan Adams isn’t from Canada – that would be Bryan Adams, but it’s an easy mistake to make. He is, however, one of the most prolific and celebrated songwriters around. We put up with a lot from Ryan Adams and his bad-boy attitude, but it’s the songs that keep everyone coming back. From his early days in Whiskeytown to his solo career-launching one-two punch of Heartbreaker and Gold, to his extraordinary 2005 trilogy with the Cardinals, and even to 2011’s comparatively quiet Ashes and Fire, Adams rarely disappoints. He has a classic ear for melody and an appealing country-rock heart, and his extensive catalog holds riches that reward repeated listens.

Which is why it’s always tough to watch him screw around, rather than take hold of that prodigious talent and make something special. It’s been three years since Ashes and Fire, and in that time he’s formed a couple punk bands, produced Fall Out Boy, and coughed up a couple one-offs. He’s reportedly written and recorded more albums than Prince, but so far, he hasn’t let us hear any of them. I don’t want to hear Ryan Adams play in bands like Pornography. I want to hear him write powerful original songs, and record them.

From outside appearances, my wish has been granted with the release of Ryan Adams, the man’s 14th solo album and first self-titled effort. Here are 11 new Adams songs, most of them played with an electric-guitar verve the likes of which we haven’t heard in a while. Adams’ tone has a Mike Campbell edge to it, a cavernous ‘80s reverb that is undeniably wonderful. The early Heartbreakers feel is in full effect, from the catchy opener “Gimme Something Good” to the minimal rocker “Stay With Me,” which may as well be a lost Tom Petty tune. It’s a great feel, and Adams’ voice works perfectly with it.

So why am I not thrilled with this? Because these are songs Ryan Adams could have written in half an hour. They’re fine – in fact, most of them are pretty good – but they’re safe. Gone are the days when Adams would pen searingly personal tunes that burrowed into your heart. Now he writes choruses like this: “I love you baby, treat me right, hold me closer in the middle of the night, don’t worry, it’s all right…” I really like some of these songs, particularly “Trouble” and “Shadows” and the delicate “My Wrecking Ball.” But it all seems too easy somehow.

I definitely don’t dislike Ryan Adams. In fact, there’s a darkness to this one that I’ve been missing from his work, and the guitar tone alone is worth getting this for. The whole thing just flutters by without doing very much to me, though, and at his best, Ryan Adams would not stand for that. I want more. I want to feel these songs, and while I like them, I’m not feeling anything from them. I’m glad to have Adams back, but this record feels like something he did in a weekend, rather than something he yearned for, struggled with and birthed. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing particularly right with it either.

* * * * *

Whew. More reviews next week, as the flood continues. Robert Plant, Mike Doughty, Death From Above 1979 and My Brightest Diamond, at least. See you then. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.