Songs for songwriters

How the Counting Crows decided which tunes to put on their new album of covers

Alan Sculley | Boulder Weekly

In many cases, a covers record is a group’s attempt to show its musical influences and how its own songs came to sound the way they do.

Def Leppard’s 2006 CD, Yeah!, is a good example. Featuring covers of early 1970s glam/hard rock tunes, it was meant to show that the band was rooted in rock and not heavy metal.

The Counting Crows’ new CD of cover tunes, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) is not that kind of album. The songs the band covers don’t come from any certain genre or era. So it isn’t about helping fans understand the musical influences that shaped the Bay-area group.

But Underwater Sunshine offers something that might make it more valid as a covers album than most such releases. It helps tell a story about two groups that preceded and helped connect the members of Counting Crows. Just as importantly, the band accomplishes something that many acts don’t achieve in making covers albums — the Counting Crows make the songs on Underwater Sunshine sound like their own.

Without knowing this was an album of songs by other artists, one would probably assume some of the tracks are Counting Crows originals. That’s because the band stayed away, for the most part, from doing songs that are well-known.

Only “Ooh La La” (by the Faces), “Amie” (by Pure Prairie League) and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (by Bob Dylan and the Band) — and possibly “Return of the Grievous Angel” (by Gram Parsons) — qualify as widely known tunes.

Otherwise, the Counting Crows bring their rootsy pop sound to songs as wide-ranging as Fairport Convention’s “Meet On The Ledge,” Teenage Fanclub’s “Start Again,” the fairly obscure Dawes song “All My Failures” and “Coming Around,” by the British group Travis.

The thread that ties together the songs, in the view of guitarist Dan Vickrey, is they are all songwriters’ songs.

“I would say every one of these songs is a good songwriting song,” he says. “It tells a story, has a narrative, and therefore has an emotion that that listener can put themselves into.”

The idea of doing a covers album began to surface soon after the Counting Crows — Adam Duritz (vocals), Jim Boglos (drums), David Bryson (guitar), Charlie Gillingham (keyboards), David Immergluck (guitar), Millard Powers (bass), and Vickrey — reconvened after a two-year hiatus that followed the tour in support of the band’s 2008 CD, Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings.

Vickrey says there was no grand plan to return to action with this kind of CD.

“This was kind of where Adam’s head was at, and Adam feels these songs as a singer,” Vickrey says.

“I think the real key was making it our own,” he adds. “Songs on their own sound good, but I think, my personal opinion is we bettered all of them. But why do them if you’re not going to better all of them?”

The band has certainly had its share of experience with cover tunes. (It even had a hit when it covered Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” in 2002.) While its albums have otherwise generally contained all original material, cover tunes have made frequent appearances during the band’s concerts over the years.

“I think Adam’s point, even in covering the songs early on in that first tour, is that there are a lot of great songwriters out there in America that you never will be able to hear any of their music, because they have construction jobs or they just didn’t want to pursue what it takes to go on the road or whatever it is,” Vickrey says. “I think it’s really kind of shining a light on those kinds of singer/songwriters, just to let people know that there are those people.”

On the current Counting Crows tour, Vickrey said, the group is playing about five songs from the new CD, which of course, leaves plenty of time to perform material from August And Everything After and the band’s subsequent studio albums – Recovering the Satellites (1996), This Desert

Life (1999), Hard Candy (2002) and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings.

The band, he says, feels rejuvenated after its time off.

“It has been refreshing to get back and play the shows,” Vickrey says. “It’s always fun to get back to playing. You realize how much you missed that. So I think that energy will be brought with this tour and the ones beyond. I think it’s all good. It can only help recharge the battery and bring a certain freshness to it.”