Hard Candy

Counting Crows

DGC Records, 2002


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Counting Crows is one of those bands with such a distinct approach to music that people generally end up either loving them or hating them. For me, lead singer/chief composer Adam Duritz's poetic lyrics (or is it lyrical poetry?) have always had the power to overcome any other doubts I may have had. But the band's fourth studio album, the sweet and difficult Hard Candy, doesn't make the equation any easier to solve.

The first time I listened to this disc, I thought it was the best thing the band had recorded. It seemed like everything had come together -- the arrangements are varied and complex, the lyrics sharp as ever, and the entire album feels polished and finished, with all musical details attended to and real variety in the arrangements. It seemed producer Steve Lillywhite (of U2 and Dave Matthews fame) had given the group the final nudge they need to become a fully realized rock and roll band possessed of all the skills necessary to rock with both passionate fervor and mature precision.

And that still sounds like the case to me on the early part of this disc. The kick-off title track truly is one of the best cuts they've ever recorded, a ringing piece of Byrds/Petty jangle-rock with a lyric that will hit home for anyone who's ever felt nostalgic in the present for a relationship that caused them pain in the past. Following it with the sarcastically upbeat "American Girls" is a startling move for a band whose bread and butter is slow, heart-rending laments, but it works, and there's plenty of the latter down the road.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A little farther along, Duritz's career-long obsession with his own insomnia continues in the simply gorgeous "Goodnight LA," in which he finally seems to get to the root of the problem: "And what brings me down now is love / Cause I can never get enough." Not an easy thing to confess, but he does it with complete conviction. Other highlights include the supple melodies and rich harmonies of midtempo numbers like "If I Could Give All My Love -or- Richard Manuel Is Dead" (a track whose arrangement appropriately smacks of The Band) and the steady-building, multi-layered "Up All Night."

The real test, though, comes in the middle of the disc, where the band attempts several experiments. The use of a string section and exotic percussion on the slow-building "Miami" works well, giving the song a strong trajectory that sweeps you along with it. But the horns and strings on "Butterfly In Reverse" only serve to underline the basic problem: the lyric, which sees Duritz collaborating with alt.country wunderkind Ryan Adams, just doesn't work. As a result, the whole song collapses like a balloon with a slow leak.

Serving as a microcosm of the entire album, "New Frontier" is a song I've changed my mind about twice. At first its totally uncharacteristic whining '80s synthesizer seemed so annoying it nearly blocked out my appreciation of the song's clever lyric about the superficiality of American pop culture. Then the lyric won out for awhile and I decided the synthesizer was just the right musical touch for the subject matter. Then it started annoying the hell out of me again. Moral of the story: experiments can blow up in your face sometimes.

The last third of the album is a good news-bad news affair. It's anchored by a pair of classic Crows laments, slow, heart-rending numbers full of vivid images and brilliant twists of phrase. "Carriage" and especially "Black And Blue" take you to the emotional core of the Crows' roots-confessional genre of music and score big points for the home team. The already-praised "Up All Night" would have been a strong closer, but instead they finish with "Holiday In Spain," a languorous, self-pitying track that rubbed me the wrong way.

Among the reasons this album sounds so much fuller than previous Crows efforts is that the band, initially with one guitarist among its five members, now boasts three among its seven (Dave Bryson, Dan Vickrey and newest member David Immergluck, formerly of Camper Van Beethoven and John Hiatt's band). It's got to be a little tough on these three, trying to figure out where they fit into each song, but the variety of textures and tones they're able to produce with their different styles of playing is outstanding.

Hard Candy is a fitting name for this album, given its frequent brilliance and occasional rough spots. One of the things that separates great bands from the rest of the pack, though, is their willingness to take risks. The Crows take some here, and while I'm not a hundred percent impressed with the results, I salute the effort. This is definitely an album worth owning.

Rating: B+

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of DGC Records, and is used for informational purposes only.