As I’ve mentioned before, I was introduced to a lot of music riding in the car with my parents. Mom was into 60’s R&B and pop (Motown, Stax, Beatles, Beach Boys), Dad loved roots-influenced solo artists (Dylan, Elvis, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Paul Simon). They both loved Emmylou Harris, but who the hell doesn’t.
Every summer, Mom, Dad, Brother, and I would pile into the Oldsmobile and take a roadtrip. Usually, we drove West Virginia to see our extended family. Sometimes, we went Elsewhere. Occasionally, we went to West Virginia and Elsewhere. During these marathon drives, we took turns picking music (specifically, the next CASSETTE): Dad first, the person riding shotgun next, and around we went. On a long drive, you could count on at least one George Jones selection from Dad. Mom always worked Martha & The Vandellas into the rotation. Brother’s pick was forever and always Use Your Illusion until, aged fourteen, he officially became too smart for everything that wasn’t Bob Dylan (if this sounds a little like confirmation, it was).
One summer, Brother’s friend made him a mixtape for our drive to West Virginia (or Elsewhere). I can still see the tracklist scrawled on the insert. The tape was full of soon-to-be 96X staples (10000 Maniacs, Crash Test Dummies, R.E.M., etc). But listed #1 was a song I’d never heard by a band I’d never heard of, with an asterisk and “awesome!” written in the margin.*
And, in my memory, it was the first 96X song that all four of us openly liked.
Song of the Week: Counting Crows, “Round Here“
Adam Duritz has spent much of his life battling depression. According to Duritz, his first battles with major depressive disorder began in his early twenties after a bad LSD trip. Passionate about music (and clearly talented), he struggled to make music a consistent, full-time enterprise. It’s hard to start a rock band if you can’t get out of bed.
Still, he dabbled with different sets of San Francisco musicians, and he slowly found his voice as a songwriter. In the midst of an experimental, jammy incarnation The Himalayans, Duritz wrote a song called “Round Here.” By the time the song we know reached completion, Duritz had focused on a new band with an all-star cast of Bay Area musicians. His voice, combined with their musicianship and professionalism, became Counting Crows. The rest we (kind of) know.
“Round Here” became a massive hit in the 96X-era for a lot of reasons: it’s catchy, the production and execution are great, it was wisely marketed to a moody early 90’s alt-rock crowd desperate for more “smart pop,” etc. It’s a marriage of talent, inspiration, and great timing. But I think its best attribute is urgency.
Some of the best songs simply had to come out. This is more than talent, and this is more than inspiration (though it’s both of those, too). These songs sound like the feverish tick-tock of a time bomb. They sound like they arrived fully-formed out of sheer will and desperation. They’re breathless, and they’re some kind of perfect. They strain to say everything at once, and usually do. They’re hard to describe, but–a wonderful testament to the way audiences receive pop music–we know it when we hear it.
“Mr. Jones” is inspired; “Round Here” is urgent. It sounds like what it is: an explosion of talent after years spent bottled up, hung up, and clinically depressed.
(More examples: Of the 96X era, “Losing My Religion” has this quality. Pearl Jam’s “State of Love and Trust.” A classic example is “Like a Rolling Stone.” Outkast’s “B.O.B.” The Clash’s “London Calling.” In many cases, the artist had bigger hits, but this was the song that initially broke them to a new, wider audience.)
“Round Here” is the sound of a breaking point. The song deftly builds to its climax–specifically, Maria’s ledge. Duritz’s outcry that “she must be tired of something,” remains deeply affecting nearly twenty years later. It’s a moment of silence finally voiced, inarticulateness deftly-articulated, helplessness trying to lend a hand. Everything in the song has built to this point, and the line is both explicitly hollow and implicitly fulfilling. Alongside “The Bends” (“I wish it was the sixties/I wish I could be happy/I wish…something would happen“) and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (its entirety), this moment of “Round Here” stands as a definitive moment of 90’s rock.
It was catchy enough for Mom to love it, lyrical enough for Dad to like it, cool/relevant enough for Brother to sign onto it, and accessible enough for me to appreciate it. In 1993, it was the perfect single for anyone smart, landlocked, and scared of mosh pits. “Round Here” is a quintessential song of the 96X era, and Counting Crows’ finest hour.
Unfortunately, that hour was also their first.
But this series isn’t just about remembering the 90’s–it’s about connecting the dots to 2013. And it’s a shame that New Counting Crows have been disappointing enough to actually compromise appreciation of Old Counting Crows**.
I’ll point the finger at myself. I distrust and hate Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings (2008) so much, so viscerally, it colors the way I’ve ever viewed the band. I could go on speculating the reasons Counting Crows were once that good and are now this good***. I could write circles about whether I should’ve seen this coming. I could question what trust even exists between a band and their fanbase. I could rhapsodize on burning out, fading away, etc.
But I won’t. I’m wrong to retrospectively dislike Counting Crows, and I’m not going to. I’ll let Rasheed Wallace and Robert Plant guide me: ball don’t lie, and the song remains the same. “Round Here” is a great record, even if it’s full of ghosts.
Same time next week: Volume 5!
*Might not have said “awesome!” I can’t remember. Maybe “tubular” or “cowabunga” or some other 90’s radness.
**Should be mentioned: I think Recovering the Satellites is a fantastic record, This Desert Life has great moments, and “Up All Night” (from Hard Candy) is one of their best songs. We’re not talking about Maria jumping off a ledge here; more like slowly, methodically, falling down the stairs.
**OK, I’ll bite. The short version: I think it’s hard on a band’s development when its most talented member is also its most volatile and least musical member. This lends itself to early, inspired highs and later, misguided lows. The Killers (of whom I’m also a fan) are another example. A counterexample is R.E.M. The difference is R.E.M. were a “band that mattered” long before (and long after) they were a “band that was hugely popular.” Their hits were more incidental than integral.