There are those who heard "August and Everything After", Counting Crows legendary debut upon its release in 1993 who never really got over it. This was a record that somehow defined musical space and time, capturing a certain spirit of the age. "August" was so impactful that even excellent follow up albums by Adam Durvitz and co were overshadowed by its breadth and depth. Thus when poorer fare followed over the more recent period, such as a Marmite concept album (Saturday Night & Sunday Mornings), an ok covers album and a range of "live" albums, many shifted their gaze elsewhere.
"Somewhere under Wonderland" is the Crows first album of new material since 2008 and whilst no match for their debut it is a record that is a rich palette of sounds. Durvitz's song writing once threatened to be the missing link between Springsteen and Van Morrison and there are times on this album where past glories are rebooted. The long opener "Palisades Park" is essentially a eight minute suite of songs which for some reason brings to mind Joni Mitchell circa "Hissing of Summer Lawns". It is a sort of musical kitchen sink replete with a jazzy trumpet opening, Durvitz's hurt vocal and wordy lyrics plus standard rock segments which push the song along. Repeated listens confirm a well planned if loose construction which despite its intricate nature is very endearing. Even better is the slow blues of "Scarecrow" which starts with a Drive by Truckers riff and builds into a commendable rootsy rocker. The later "John Appleseed's Lament" is probably the track with the nearest feel to the preoccupations of "August" and is punctuated by some lovely guitar work. When Durvitz strips everything back on "God of the Ocean Tides" he confirms his status as a top grade songwriter and reminds us that "less is more". On the down side why he felt the need to populate the album with such a standard rocker as "Elvis went to Hollywood" with its daft lyrics about "Aliens on motorcycles" is a bit of mystery. Still amends are made with the brilliant "Possibility Days" the albums concluding ballad a fine lament about "waiting for winter this year" where all the bands considerable strengths are on full display.
What is impressive about "Somewhere Under Wonderland" is the ability of Counting Crows to dust themselves down after what has been a lean few years and slowly construct an album which is possibly one of their best collections in a decade. In 2013 Durvitz admitted that "God of Ocean Tides" was the first original song he had written in a long while. On the evidence here his creative juices are flowing again and whilst we in the UK have "parked" this band, its time to give them another chance with this fine release.
Review by Red on Black