Selected @ Random: Counting Crows – This Desert Life

This is the first of a series, called Selected @ Random, that will appear periodically in this blog. The idea behind this series of entries is that I randomly select a CD that I own (by closing my eyes and picking a CD from the bookcase that is filled with them), that is not new or one that I’ve already discussed, and likely one that I haven’t listen to in a while, and then retroactively review it.

Back in the 1990s I was a big Counting Crows fan. They weren’t my favorite band, but they were up there, and their first two albums, August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites, were definitely listened to a lot. I still feel that they are two of the better albums from the mid-90s, particularly the first (their double live album is alright in my opinion). So when the band announced their third studio album, This Desert Life, in 1999, I was excited, and was really hoping that the quality and style of music from those first two albums.

When I watched the video premier of the album’s first single, “Hangin’ Around,” I was kind of disappointed. It wasn’t anything like any of the songs from the first two albums, and seemed that the band wrote this to be the “radio song.” Once I got my hands on the album in its entirety, I was surprised that the album was less like the single, and closer to what I expected from the band. However, I still couldn’t get into it as much as those first two albums, even though I wrote a positive review of it in my high school’s newspaper.

So, 13 years later, I will be taking a look back at This Desert Life by Counting Crows, and maybe my views and opinions on album have changed.

For the first time in many years, I just listened to the entirety of This Desert Life, and what I came away with is a fairly new appreciation for the album. Though it still does not match the quality of the first two Counting Crows album, especially August and Everything After, the songs on the band’s third album are not nearly as bad as I used to think they were, and some are pretty damn good.

The album opens with the aforementioned “Hangin’ Around,” and as I previously indicated, it is much more poppy than anything that the band had put out up to that point.  However, the song is an incredibly catchy and well-constructed song that has all the elements of a radio hit. It’s upbeat, has great melodic and lyrical hooks, and is constructed in a traditional verse-chorus fashion. Yet the song does not appropriately setup the rest of the album. It’s an anomaly compared to the rest of the tracks, which lack the overemphasis of being radio-ready and are much more like the Crows’ previous offerings.

The second song on the album is “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” which could’ve easily been placed on Recovering the Satellites, not only brings the band back to its comfort zone, but it also reminds listeners that lead singer Adam Duritz is a darn good lyricist. The song, which clocks in at 7:46, refuses to wander aimlessly, and instead has a clearly drawn path that is directed by Duritz’s words. Like Dylan and Springsteen, Duritz is able to use words to create images, that may or may not make much sense, but keep the listener engaged without having to repeat any lines (besides the choruses). I’m not saying Duritz is on the same level as those two wordsmiths, but he definitely uses them as models.

The song also does what it’s predecessor does not, which is it sets the tone for the rest of the record. The songs that directly follow, “Amy Hit the Atmosphere,” “Four Days,” and “All My Friends,” all feel like they fit together and all have the quintessential Counting Crows sound (which is hard to describe, but easy to recognize if you are familiar with the band). They’re all also very good songs, particularly the first of those three, and close out the first half (or side as it is indicated on the album) on a pretty high note.

The second half of the album opens with “High Life,” which isn’t a bad song, but it isn’t a great song either. Musically, it is well written and executed wonderfully, but lyrically…no, vocally, the song is not so good. Duritz becomes fairly whiney and seems to be forcing emotion that isn’t really there. Along with this, he seems to be making up words and/or lines in a way that would be more appropriate for a live show, than an album. Particularly near the end of the song, where he starts to mumble and seems to be talking to someone who isn’t there. Quite annoying, in my opinion.

The song that follows, “Colorblind,” is pretty much a solo ballad by Adam Duritz that is very dark, both in music and words. And unlike the tracks on the first half of the album, this song has Duritz singing some very lackluster lyrics. There is no story. There just seems to be self-loathing and/or depression, without even knowing the context. It’s my least favorite song on the album, and probably one of my least favorite Counting Crows songs, period.

Thankfully, the rest of the album gets back on track, and ends on a much better note than if the last two songs closed it out. “I Wish I Was A Girl” and “Speedway” are both solid tunes that do nothing to diminish from the album, and only solidify the fact that the band is capable of writing quality songs. “St. Robinson In His Cadillac Dreams,” is the last song on the track list, and is a whimsical ditty. The song showcases, once again, the lyrical talents of Adam Duritz, allowing the album to seemingly end on a nice note. However, it is not the last song on the album.

As was the trend of the 1990s, there is a “hidden track.” At the 8:33 mark on the track, the dead air awakens with noise, and after a few seconds, the band kicks into, “Kid Things.” When I first got the album, this was my favorite song, probably because it is super upbeat and fun, but still rocks. In reality, it’s not much more than what I just described. It’s nothing special, but nothing terrible either. And though the record ends with two minutes of silly banter and sound, all of that, as well as the song, shows that the band was at least having fun in the studio, and makes me appreciate the band and the album just a bit more.

So where do I stand on this album today? I still think it pales in comparison to its studio predecessors, but is not nearly as bad as I once thought it was. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that having “Hangin’ Around” as the opening song really threw me off, never allowing for me to appreciate some of the very good songs on the album, like “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” “Amy Hit the Atmosphere,” and “I Wish I Was A Girl.” Yet, I’m still not a fan of “High Life” or “Colorblind,” (as you probably could tell) both of which would rank near the bottom of my favorite Counting Crows songs. Overall, This Desert Life is good record and much more enjoyable than I remember it, but it’s also an album that I probably won’t be putting on out of a deep need to hear it for a while.


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