Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland

Tags

, , , , ,

Hopefully this post will actually propel me to actually do this weekly, rather than that one solitary post from nary a year ago! There’s been a slew of new music enter my life recently, a lot of it very exciting, both from artists new to me and some old favourites. This review is about a band in the latter camp – Counting Crows.

Everybody’s heard their cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ featuring the horrifically underrated one hit wonder Vanessa Carlton (if you aren’t singing the piano melody from A Thousand Miles, you sure are now!). ‘Colorblind’ and ‘Accidentally in Love’ (from the Cruel Intentions and Ahrek 2 soundtracks respectively) are also two heavily played songs by the band. Not everyone knows it’s them and who they are. They are a band that has been working hard to keep bringing great music to their fan base, and even still are reaching Top 40 in the UK album charts, although with the decline in album sales, whether this is down to actual radio play generating new fans, or just the old fan are supporting them is up for debate. Singer Adam Duritz and company produce a wide spectrum from angst ridden pleas against a sparse piano or acoustic guitar backdrop, to stadium filling singalong anthems. More often than not, there’s two sides to every song, which reflects Adam Duritz’s sense of not belonging to this world that their first hit single Mr Jones catapulted them into. Hanginaround is a great example of this – huge, catchy melody, lyrics and a melody that Duritz could get any crowd singing to the stage whilst he has a break in the set. Delve deeper though, and there’s a tangible hint of ‘Where am I? Where am I going?’

If I were to sum up the band in one word, that word would be ‘storytellers.’ Every song feels like a journey, a snapshot in the life of someone who’s been through a lot, whether that’s Duritz or a completely different entity or subject. Metaphors and wordplay are intrinsic to Duritz’s writing style; a particular favourite of mine being ‘I step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no-one notices the contrast of white on white.’ He really knows how to paint a picture with eloquence; showing a lot, but in a way that doesn’t smack literal into the face of the listener.

Whilst I could write many more paragraphs about Duritz, the band itself musically could take up a whole lot more. These guys are an ecelctic mix of musicians, some multi-instrumentalists, taking your standard electric guitars, bass and drums, and adding pianos, Hammond organs, mandolins, lap steel guitars, accordions, brass instruments to the melting pot. The level of musicianship is astounding, and I very much place Counting Crows as one of the best live bands on the planet, able to create individual performances every night they play. Their ability to jam with each other and improvise is something not easily achieved, and only serves to make them a compelling listen.

SOMEWHERE UNDER WONDERLAND
Somewhere Under Wonderland is their seventh studio album in 21 years. Released in 2014, it hit the 15th spot in the UK Top 40, and has been a regular staple on my hifi since. It clocks in at 41 minutes with 9 tracks on the standard version.

Opening track is ‘Palisades Park,’ a track that Duritz has described as the best thing he’s ever written. A horn intro breaks into a sparkling piano piece. It’s a grand introduction, very fitting with the subject matter. Or at least part of it. The songs is a two part story set in 1910 and the ’70s. The 1910 part is about a boxing match between Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson in Reno, Nevada. Or it’s more about Jeffries laying on his back on the mat wondering ‘How the Hell did I get here?’ That sentiment is echoed 60 years later by a couple, reflecting on how their lives are changing, where their going against their expectations and how they’re trying different things. In an interview with ‘Acoustic Café,’ Duritz explained:
“I started writing this song and initially it was about a guy and a girl growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. I started to write about their lives, but then when we got to… the verse after the first chorus. ‘You walk into the bar like some Saturday star stud straight on spiked heels and needles and nerves.’ I really started to get this idea about them cross-dressing. Well at least the guy dressing up in woman’s clothes. So the song’s very informed about that, about people living on the fringes and trying things just cause it’s interesting to try things in life. I mean cause they’re interested in what’s over the next hill. What does it feel like to dress up in woman’s clothes when you’re a guy? You know, it’s nothing to do with being gay or not being gay. It’s just what does it feel like to be different?”

Musically, the piece is very easy going, picking up in the right places and letting the vocals breath. The horn section is especially captivating. 

‘Earthquake Driver’ follows with a jaunty feel to it. Much more singsong than the previous track. It’s a list of dreams and hopes. Some are crazy, humorous, fantastical. Others cut a bit deeper, plugging into people’s intrinsic want to belong, and sometimes that belonging involves being the same as others. At the end of the day, the subject just doesn’t want to go back to what he’s used to. He wants to forget and get away from the life he currently leads. A great example of Counting Crow’s ability to create a song with multiple layers of meaning and depth.

Track three is ‘Dislocation,’ another uptempo tune, and clearly sets it’s subject matter out, almost as a continuation of ‘Earthquake Driver.’ It starts with the line: ‘I was an alien in utero, somehow missed New Mexico, fell to earth in Baltimore.’ Duritz continues to explore this sense of not belonging to where he his, both physically and professionally, being at ‘empty parties filled with people [he doesn’t] know.’ He uses the radio and TV as symbols of being cut off from everything else, hence dislocation. Things get a little bit crazy lyrically towards the end of the piece, the subject is obviously unhinged, talking about gamma rays and dropping bombs, but in the end, I think he knows he needs some sort of help.

‘God of Ocean Tides’ is a simpler ode, mainly acoustic guitars and strings. It’s a song about travelling away and the memories of things and people left behind. These aren’t all good memories, and there are a few regrets and almost apologies. There’s a real sense of escape here, a wanting to forget. Lyrically this has to be one of my favourite songs on the album, as Duritz’s ability to create a story is phenomenal here. There’s someone in California that he may have led on in a relationship that he didn’t want to be part of, deep down, but for whatever reason felt the need to keep trying (‘And I tried all my days to love you just the way you hoped I might, but I’m leaving here tonight‘). This eventually led him to sever ties and leave. The feeling of regret is rife throughout the piece, both for himself and those he left behind.

‘Scarecrow’ has a bit more American Southern rock vibe to it that any Crows fan will be familiar with. Lyrically it’s a jumble, in a great way. It’s all about some drug induced crazy times with Ivan and an unnamed female friend. Duritz recognises that this poor girl is struggling, even through his ‘Valium haze,’ and that he’s the one to protect her from all the crap she has to deal with. Being the scarecrow to scatter them all away, as it were. A scarecrow isn’t a traditional saviour object, but maybe that’s the point – Duritz isn’t the white knight, he’s just some guy on drugs and being a scarecrow is about the best he can do in that state.

‘Elvis Went to Hollywood’ is a fun song. Great imagery, driving drumbeat and a real uptempo feel to everything. Strange, considering that it’s written about Duritz’s mental illness and the crazy shit that goes on in his head. Whilst the majority of the Crows back catalogue is Duritz dealing with his issues and dissociative disorder, this song is almost embracing the crazy. He once stated in an interview with Creatuve Loafing that this song was about the decline in Western civilisation and how Elvis moving to Hollywood was the start of that in many people’s eyes. 

‘[But] what if it wasn’t just the artsy fartsy thing?’. What if there were Aliens coming over the mountains and burned everything down? What if there were much more severe consequences?’ So I wrote a song about the decline of Western civilization that also involves aliens.’

It wasn’t a song I was expecting from Counting Crows, but Duritz is definitely looking at the things that go on his head sometimes, being so bizarre you can only laugh and it’s ‘not going to kill me in the end.’

‘Cover Up The Sun’ is country all over. Another fun, uptempo tune that will definitely have people singing along to. To me it’s a few brief snapshots of some of those that Duritz has met on his journey out of California. Some interesting figures, some reflecting on life, others not doing as well, such as the poor woman mixing absinthe with kerosene, a believer who doesn’t always have the backing of that which she believes in. Whether that’s God or the Church is up for debate. It’s a driving song, but one that definitely has a somber undercurrent.

‘John Appleseed’s Lament’ loses the country vibe, back to a more standard alt-rock showing. It’s also the return of Maria, a character Duritz refers to multiple times across previous albums. He’s always insisted that she’s a fictional character, a similar person to him, on the edge. The song isn’t about Maria though, it’s very much about Duritz, who namedrops himself for the first time in a song. It’s about Duritz having a breakdown, not feeling connected to anything, and the poor soul that’s having to contend with the problem. She’s very much in love with Duritz, but what she’s being put through is too much for her. By the end of the song, she’s gone. It’s a fleeting reference, but maybe that’s because he’s still in that disconnect.

The album closer ‘Possibility Days’ starts with slow piano and a couple in an airport. It’s a story of a blossoming long distance relationship, the realisation that these two people are perfect for each other, but the jump isn’t coming from either side. There’s always the potential for one to say ‘I’m coming back with you on that plane,’ but it never happens. Lyrically this is the strongest song on the album, and one of the strongest of the entire back catalogue. Whoever reads this blog, if there’s one song to listen to, it’s this. We’ve all been in a similar place, where we haven’t said what we need to say, and shut down that possibility.

All in all, a strong album. A varied mix of songs and styles, but still unmistakably Counting Crows. As I mentioned earlier on, this band is one of storytellers, and Duritz has a real ability to take his own experiences and somehow write them in a way where most people can relate and put themselves in those shoes. I just hope that it’s not long until the next album. If this album is an indicator that Counting Crows are still able to craft a quality set of songs as they’ve lived and gone through the changes that years and experiences bring, I’m excited to hear what comes next.

Advertisements

Samuel Yirga- Ethiojazz

Welcome to my first blog. Common sense would say that I should start my weekly blog on music with an artist that most people know, or something accessible, in order to draw people in. But where would the fun in that be? To that end, I have decided to write about a young man from Ethiopia named Samuel Yirga. Samuel is a jazz pianist and composer who was signed to Real World Records (owned by Peter Gabriel- yup, that Peter Gabriel). Before releasing solo work on the label, Samuel was part of Dub Colossus, a UK/Ethiopian based jazz fusion band that started in 2006. Come 2012, he released his second full length solo record: Guzo on Real World Records.

Before discussing the album, it might be worth a quick introduction to the genre Ethiojazz. Interestingly, this style of music was born from the mind of an Armenian immigrant to Ethiopia- Nerses Nalbandian. He inherited the role of Head of the National Opera of Ethiopia from his uncle, Kervok, in the 1950s. Emperor Halsie Selassie had Narses compose for the National Opera. He married traditional Ethiopian scales and ideals and married them to the popular big band instrumentation of the Western world. Ethiojazz, or at least a precursor of the genre, was born.

The major player in Ethiojazz is Mulatu Astatke- a Welsh and US educated Ethiopian who effectively stumbled into music during his time studying aeronautic engineering. Inspired by other African students playing overseas and bringing their respective homeland’s music to an international audience, Astatke proceeded to do the same for Ethiopia. Using Nerses Nalbandian’s exeriments as a basis, he combined Western jazz, of the style of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane, with traditional Ethiopian music. The coming together of Ethiopia’s unique pentatonic based melodies and Western 12-tone scales and instrumentation is what truly heralded the coming of this new genre. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that he brought Ethiojazz to it’s spiritual home.

Throughout the 1960s through until the mid-’70s, the arts as a whole was booming in Ethiopia. However, it took a while for Astatke’s new music to gain real popularity, due to a traditionalist society initially unwilling to embrace anything Western after an age of colonisation. Through persistence, Astatke fought through this, and Ethiojazz became accepted throughout society, with other artists such as the Alern-Girna Band emerging.

1974 saw a low point for all art forms in Ethiopia, with the Marxist Deng regime censoring anything it deemed as being Western. This continued through until 1991, when Ethiopia became a democratic state. During these 17 years, many musicians fled Ethiopia, yet continued to bring Ethiojazz to the rest of the world- even though many in Ethiopia itself grew up with no knowledge of the genre. Eventually musicians returned to the country, and Ethiojazz has exploded into a second golden age, still spearheaded by Mulatu Astatke, who received an honourary doctorate of music from his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music in 2012, at the age of 79.

There is obviously a lot more to the story of Ethiojazz, and there are many excellent resources on the web for those interested further. I ended the history lesson in 2012, which is incidentally the year the album I will be reviewing was released- Samuel Yirga’s Guzo.

GUZO

Samuel Yirga’s sophomore record comprises of 11 tracks and clocks in at just over an hour. The opening track, Abet Abet is an instrumental track that starts with a repeating motif from Yirga, which is mirrored by the other instruments when they kick in a few bars later. This is interspersed with melodic passages, utilising Western jazz stables such as the saxophone,trumpet and trombone, alongside the traditional Ethiopian kebero (a type of drum) and the mesenqo (a single string fiddle- often an accompaniment, but due to it’s construction is very difficult to play). There is little in the way of solo piano, Samuel showing his ability to compose an ensemble. Abet Abet is an interesting piece that really defines the sound of modern Ethiojazz.

The second track, Tiwista, follows a similar formula concerning a repeating motif, but here we start to hear a bit more of Samuel’s impressive piano playing. His use of syncopation and interesting phrasing over a walking bass line is a lot more “jazz sounding” than the previous track, and is therefore probably a good track for existing jazz fans to begin with. We also have a traditional Western drum kit rather than the previous track’s Ethiopian percussion.

Firma Ena Wereket is the happy medium between the previous tracks. Whilst the invocation of traditional Ethiopian music is here, we again get to hear Yirga using the piano as a melodic, leading instrument. The middle section again utilises syncopation and interesting phrasing ideas, but the song does come back to the central idea. Although there is a lot of repetition, it is mesmerising enough not to become boring.

The next track, Yeh Bati Koyita, is a departure. A solo piano piece that moves between melancholy and little flits of uplifting charm. His virtuosity shines through without feeling overindulgent, as jazz can oft seem to be. Yirga is constantly serving the song here, almost like a jazz version of Ludovico Einaudi- showing that throwing a plethora at notes at the stave and seeing what sticks only makes for a technical exercise rather than a song.

Track five is our first introduction to vocals. Nou de Soleil is an uplifting, mid-tempoed segue into the track I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun. A choir of female voices leads to a short piano flourish into a track that is full of soul and not a small amount of light funk. It is a fun song, with vocal harmonies reminiscent of the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire. The solo female vocalist has a wonderful timbre to her voice, and the answering melodies from the flute accent it beautifully. There are two short piano sections through the second half of the song, which don’t feel like they are particularly necessary, but this does little to detract from the vocal performance and song as a whole.

Dance With The Legend is another solo piano piece. It has a bit more swing to it, showing Yirga’s influences from an earlier period of Western jazz. At no point does he go over the top with self indulgence, nor does he allow the track to become stale. there are little flourishes and melodic sections that really grab you and had me smiling on more than one occasion.

This is followed by My Head, and we’re brought back to musical ground similar to the first and third tracks. Whilst the instrumentation is mainly Western as far as I can tell, the use of Ethiopian pentatonic melodies is present throughout.

Drop Me There is another solo piano piece. Hauntingly beautiful, it is generally sparse, until later on where you can imagine it being played in a smokey jazz club with a female singer putting the sad story Yirga wants to tell into words.

The penultimate track is the oddity. The Blues of Wollo is mainly a flute piece which did little for me. Whilst the underlying orchestration is fine, the flute seems a bit too much at times. The flute gives way to a vocal performance that is accented by the piano. Images of Mosques  and the Middle East are brought up during this section, with the ululating of the female vocalist. The piece finishes with one of the best solo pieces of piano on the record, with Yirga’s signature use of syncopation.

We finish with African Diaspora, a pop-jazz song with a large latin influence. The lead vocalist has a wonderful voice and utilises vibrato to lovely effect. I can see this song being many listener’s favourite, as it’s a lot more accessible than other tracks on this album. I love the minimal use of a Hammond Organ, and a short guitar solo. The song breaks into more of a big band feel, with a number of brass instruments coming in, before finishing with an a cappella performance from a vocal choir.

All in all, an enjoyable album, yet potentially challenging listening to those that may not already be a listener of jazz music. There are, however, some tracks that are really easy to tap a foot and relate to. What is a great thing about this album is Yirga’s taken this as a chance to really show off his compositional skills, rather than take the listener through an hour of high tempo scales “artistic” dissonance and, frankly, listener alienation. Peter Gabriel really has a gem here on his record label and I hope that he keeps writing and performing. He may be a few years and records away from being the next Mulatu Astatke, but I see him being able to carve his own name into the history and future of Ethiojazz.

 

Guzo is available to buy from Amazon, or can be listened to on Spotify. For more examples of Ethiojazz, visit http://8tracks.com/explore/ethio_jazz. Thank you for reading, please comment!

Ben