The Vision Thing

Gavin McNett reviews the album "Recovering the Satellites" by The Counting Crows.

By Gavin McNett

Published October 21, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Since "character issues" are big in the news this election season, and
since the topic hasn't been discussed so much as hurled back
and forth across the arena like a poison dodgeball, maybe it'd be
healthy for us to look a little more deeply into the idea of character.
Let's think, briefly, about the contradictory demands of fortitude and
of conscience. Let's talk a little bit about the implications of
greatness and of virtue, and about how they're often not the same. Let's
talk about Counting Crows.

There's no doubting their virtue. Counting Crows is one of a handful of
contemporary bands, like the Gin Blossoms and REM, who are rock stars in
all of the usual respects, with platinum records, and money, and big, puffy
write-ups in the press, and Grammy nominations, and all the other things
that have served to make rock stars contemptible since the '70s, but who've
managed to remain pretty much upright despite it all. Head Crow Adam Duritz
is still smart and articulate, in his ordinary sort of way, and he's still
nice to interviewers. "Recovering the Satellites," the band's crucial
second album, is even more tuneful and sincere than their 1993 debut
"August and Everything After," which itself was almost impossible for
anyone to dislike without feeling like a grouch.

At the very least, Counting Crows has always been a force for good
compared to the masses of sausage-grindings that have been clogging the
alternative charts and mass-market radio. If it weren't for "Mr. Jones," we
might have been pressed even more firmly under the Spin Doctors' heel, God
help us. If there were no "Einstein On The Beach," there might have been
something unknown and probably far more sinister in its place. We have to
give them credit for that.

"Recovering the Satellites" will probably be the most solid album of the
year. Each of its 14 songs is finely written and carefully
produced, and there isn't a thud anywhere in the batch. "Angels of the
Silences" and "I'm Not Sleeping" will probably be monster hits, and there's
a brace of others to take their places when those have worn out their
airplay, which could be during our children's lifetimes, if not during ours.
Nearly every song on "Satellites" is a credible radio hit  which
never, ever happens, unless you're the early Pretenders, or the "Revolver"
era Beatles, which hardly anybody ever is.

But it's no great album. And it's becoming clear that Counting Crows
are no great band. There's a very sharp line dividing what the Crows
are from what greatness is, and its name is vision. "Satellites," like
"August and Everything After," is well-wrought, polished,
soulful, lyrically clever and all sorts of other good things. But it's
also something other than adventurous, and because of that, the territory
it claims is quite small. That's the price of consistency, unless
you're the Beatles. It's also, to a great extent, the price of Adam
Duritz's failure to connect with his audience in any meaningful way.

He has a skill for painting the ordinary in broad, vivid strokes. He's
a dynamic frontman because of the passion with which he infuses his lyrics.
He has the ability to make it seem as though there's some sort of inchoate
truth, some sort of universal knowledge, animating the scenes he paints.
But if you listen too closely to his lyrics, most of them are really just
about Adam telling people what it's like to be Adam talking about being
Adam. That famous line in "Mr. Jones" that goes, "We all want to be big
stars / But we've got different reasons for that," might make you wonder
what his reasons really are. Why does this guy want to be a star? What can
he tell us about that? It all sounds deep. But it's really just
this: He wanted to be a star so that he could talk at you about how he
had reasons for wanting to be a star. It begins and ends right there.

There's no crime in a songwriter's writing about what he knows, and
none, really, in his being self-absorbed  lots of great songwriters
are. But no great songwriter is this limited. Adam Duritz seems like a nice
enough guy, and his cleverness never fails to rescue the show. But he's
stuck on the wrong side of the sharp line in front of him because he
doesn't know how to create a mood, or how to speak through another
character's voice, or even, when it comes right down to it, how to tell
anybody about anything besides his own blurry musings. So, with
"Recovering the Satellites," what you get is a bunch of clever, often
tuneful songs about nothing much, and a singer who makes the correct noises
to indicate that he's really, really emotional about it all; he sounds too
much like Van Morrison most of the time and too much like early Springsteen
everywhere else, without landing a single solid punch. That's pretty bad,
considering, and it's no less an issue of character than being mean to
interviewers or putting out the occasional sucky song.

In the last, "character" isn't just about not doing bad things. It
also means having the courage to do good things  even when they're not
easy, safe or popular. In rock 'n' roll, as elsewhere, fortitude is the engine that
moves the bus forward. Everything else is just pop records to play while you're
waiting for the ride to start.

Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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