When a band hasn’t released a studio album of new music in four years, and then puts out an album made up entirely of cover songs, you might expect their fans to get restless. For Counting Crows fans, though, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) is no less sweet because the band didn’t write the songs. Lead singer Adam Duritz and the gang have been doing covers, in full or sneakily added as bridges in live shows, since their inception. And, as Duritz says in the liner notes, “I’ve never stopped being a fan” of other people’s music.

That might explain the song selection here, as many of the originals are relatively obscure. If there’s one thing we’ve always known about the Crows, though, it’s that their musical taste is as all-embracing as it is impeccable. Alongside Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel” and Pure Prairie League’s “Amie,” you’ve got album opener “Untitled (Love Song)” by unknowns the Romany Rye.  All three songs are given similar treatment: country-tinged, high energy, electrified rock. Although none of their arrangements here are very surprising, the Counting Crows fully own these songs, making them sound fresh and new. The album was recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs, and the songs that come off the best are the ones that showcase the exhilaration of a group that knows it’s nailing the perfect take. “Angel” and “Amie,” with lots of high intensity and band interplay, are two excellent examples.

Teenage Fanclub’s slow-building “Start Again” has killer harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash. “Hospital,” a cover of a demo by another unknown, Coby Brown, might be the most angular song in the Crows’ repertoire. Dave Bryson’s electric guitar tears in and out of the song, and Duritz’s voice is filled with desperation as he shouts the lyrics. Their version of Travis’ “Coming Around” is another song just a step off the beaten path for the Crows, with its falsetto chorus and lurching drum beat. Their jangling, feel-good treatment of Faces’ “Ooh La La” doesn’t change much from the original, but it suits Duritz’s voice perfectly and is another example how well these guys can make a song their own.

Although the album is pretty solid throughout, there are a few misses. These mostly come when the energy seems to drop and the band puts out a mid-tempo rock that fits the stereotype associated with them. We featured a live version of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” in our In the Spotlight essay on the Crows, and unfortunately the studio version doesn’t measure up. It’s a comfortable version of a classic song, but the pace is just too slow, and Duritz’s ad-libs sound just a bit too forced. The iTunes Bonus Track “Borderline” by Madonna faces the same problem – the song starts to get bogged down and drags along. There are a few other points where the album hits these pacing issues, but overall the awesome instrumental work on the solos and the high energy tracks keep the album on the rails.

In the years since their debut, Counting Crows have vacillated between writing radio-friendly pop and jarring, electric rock that doesn’t fit with Top 40 or Modern Rock. On this album, they find a happy medium through the use of other people’s songs. This is the Crows doing what they do best: even when the lyrics are depressing, the songs have an uplifting immediacy to them. There might be a radio-friendly song or two in here, but it came organically, through the band playing the music they clearly love.

Underwater Sunshine Tracklist:
1. Untitled (Love Song) (Romany Rye cover)
2. Start Again (Teenage Fanclub cover)
3. Hospital (Coby Brown cover)
4. Mercy (Tender Mercies cover)
5. Meet On The Ledge (Fairport Convention cover)
6. Like Teenage Gravity (Kasey Anderson & The Honkies cover)
7. Amie (Pure Prairie League cover)
8. Coming Around (Travis cover)
9. Ooh La La (Faces cover)
10. All My Failures (Dawes cover)
11. Return of the Grievous Angel (Gram Parsons cover)
12. Four White Stallions (Tender Mercies cover)
13. Jumping Jesus (Sordid Humor cover)
14. You Ain’t Going Nowhere (Bob Dylan cover)
15. The Ballad of El Goodo (Big Star cover)
16. Borderline (Madonna cover – iTunes only)
17. Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan cover – iTunes only)

Underwater Sunshine can be found on iTunes and Amazon, and there’s plenty more from and about the Counting Crows on their website.

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