Wednesday, December 15, 2010

December 15: Counting Crows, "Sullivan Street"

Artist: Counting Crows
Song: "Sullivan Street"
Album: August And Everything After
Year: 1993

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During any era in history, when a specific sound or style is dominant, it is difficult for anything else to gain much notoriety.  Though a band may find moderate commercial success, it is usually as a "side note" to the larger musical trend of the time.  Yet every once in awhile, a band is able to bring a sound so divergent from the popular trends that not only is it not ignored, but it ignites an entire secondary musical wave.  While the early 1990's were being dominated by the aggressive, loud sounds of the so-called "grunge" movement, a sharply contrasting, more reflective sound emerged and offered a wide range of approaches and musical depth.  Among these bands, one of the most unique was the distinctive country-folk-indie rock sound from San Francisco's Counting Crows.  Without question one of the most definitive bands of the decade, the group stormed the charts with their unavoidable hit, "Mr. Jones," and they remain one of the most important groups in the development of what is now labeled as "alternative rock."  Though they have released a number of albums over the past two decades, they've yet to top their brilliant 1993 debut, August And Everything After, and the record stands as one of the greatest of the entire decade.  While every single song on the album is fantastic in its own way, everything that makes the band so uniquely enjoyable can be found in their 1993 song, "Sullivan Street."

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Counting Crows is the wide range of instruments with which they create each song.  From mandolins to violins to piano and more traditional "rock" instruments, even on their debut, it seems as if nothing is off limits, and it is due to this diversity in sound that their songs become so fantastic.  "Sullivan Street" begins with a mellow, yet unmistakable guitar riff from David Bryson, and it is quickly joined by a low, bassline from Matt Malley that is mixed far more forward on the track that is the norm.  This greater presence of the bassline gives the song a bit more of a lulling, deeper sound, and it is also from Malley's playing that the song gains its sense of movement.  Drummer Steve Bowman moves the song with an almost jazz-like approach, as he shifts the tempo a few times during the song, and it is this aspect that further separates "Sullivan Street" from nearly every other song of the era.  Multi-instrumentalist Charlie Gillingham brings an absolutely beautiful piano progression to the song, and the way in which Counting Crows worked pianos, organs, and accordions into their songs remains one of their most distinctive characteristics.  The way in which all of these sounds come together gives the song a mood and feel unlike anything else at the time, and it is this mesmerizing combination of sounds that makes "Sullivan Street" such a uniquely stunning musical experience.

Though there were many, one cannot deny the fact that Adam Duritz stands as one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable voices of his generation.  With his somber, pained voice that is easily capable of working the entire vocal spectrum, few vocalists of any era have shown as much emotional commitment and vocal honesty as one finds in Duritz's voice.  On "Sullivan Street," Duritz instantly captures the listeners' attention, and the way in which he croons and cries across the track is heartbreaking, yet charming in a way unlike any other recording in history.  Duritz rarely relents from his raw, open approach, and the close proximity that he has to the lyrics which he sings is almost never in question.  Though the feeling behind his words is always clear, Duritz also stands as one of the most brilliantly poetic lyricists of his generation, and there is often as much beauty in the words he sings as there is in actual vocal work.  With "Sullivan Street," Duritz seems to sing of a relationship that while wonderful, seems doomed for failure.  When he sings lines like, "...pretty soon now, I won't come around...," one can hear the pain and frustration that Duritz feels, and the tragic beauty of the song is solidified when he sings, "...she's almost everything I need..."  The way in which the situation is presented allows a number of interpretations of the lyrics, and yet the pain and disappointment in the voice of Adam Duritz makes the song one to which all can relate in their own way.

In an era filled with angst-ridden, distortion fueled post-punk sounds, it was nothing short of unfathomable when a band like Counting Crows suddenly found themselves at the top of the pop charts.  Representing nearly everything opposite of the "grunge" sound, the band defined what it meant to be "alternative," and one can hear influences ranging from Tim Buckley to Van Morrison to R.E.M. in their music.  Ignoring all musical conventions, it is this blend of influences and their unparalleled musical approach that made the group into icons of their generation, and there has still yet to be another group that made music which was even remotely similar.  Counting Crows 1993 debut album stands as one of the finest of the decade, and it is as close to musical perfection as one can wish to achieve.  Filled with complex musical arrangements and a more diverse instrumentation than nearly any other band of the era, there is a beauty to their music that cannot be found elsewhere in the music of the early 1990's.  Whether it is the unpredictable, yet always magnificent music or the unmistakable voice of Adam Duritz, few groups have been able to achieve the level of expression that one finds in their music.  Though it was not released as a single, and it stands as one of an album full of flawless songs, the complete package that makes Counting Crows such a beautifully brilliant band can be found in their 1993 song, "Sullivan Street."

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