May 062011

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Counting Crows have a tough gig. They are lumped in with mainstream music, earning them disdain from the hipster crowd, yet they haven’t had a Billboard hit since 2004. Lots of folks like them (they have 200,000 more “likes” on Facebook than our last In the Spotlight artist, LCD Soundsystem) but it seems hard to find many people listing the Crows as one of their all-time favorites – or at least admitting to it.

Adam Duritz, lead singer and songwriter for the band, writes songs like a poet. Unfortunately, he writes music like a poet as well. The songs themselves are sometimes catchy enough to grab some radio play, but are not often groundbreaking. The disconnect between the lyrics and music may be one issue for the band. The lyrics are carefully wrought and emotionally sung, giving the close listener reason to spend some time with the tunes, but the music itself invites the casual music fan who will listen to a song in the background when it pops up on Pandora. Neither is likely to appreciate the beauty of both sides and so the Counting Crows are considered a good, rather than great, band.

One way the band solves this problem is by singing other people’s music. As we noted back in February, Adam Duritz has great taste in choosing his songs. When playing live the band often augments their own material with lyrics from other artists: on VH1 Storytellers, the intro for “Mr. Jones” is the Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” and Adam commonly inserts Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” into his song “Round Here.”

The band has done plenty of proper covers in their career as well. One of their few recent hits was a cover of Joni Mitchell‘s “Big Yellow Taxi,” which was originally a secret song at the end of their album Hard Candy, but was later added as an official track (with the questionable addition of Vanessa Carlton’s “ooh bop bop bop”). The folksy playfulness of the original is replaced here with the levity of Adam’s sorrowful voice, but the overall message of the song still shines through. Note: This is the original hidden-track version, not the Vanessa Carlton do-over.

Early on in their career, before they had much of their own material, the band played loads of covers. Duritz has often been compared to Van Morrison, and on this live version of “Caravan,” the reasons are clear. Adam’s stage presence is great, and as the song progresses his voice and his freestyling just get better. He captures the festival feeling of this song perfectly.

The Counting Crows have a history of wonderful songs farmed out for soundtracks. Their cover of the Psychedelic Furs‘ “The Ghost in You” for the Clueless soundtrack is no exception. The ‘80s fuzz is stripped away and Adam sings over a few minimalist chords, but the emotion that bleeds through his voice fills the song with longing.

On George Jones’ country classic “A Good Year for the Roses,” (famously covered by Elvis Costello) we hear again how Adam Duritz’s can add so much weight to a song. While the original is plenty sad, the Crows’ version is heartbreaking, sparsely accompanied by guitar and accordion.

Every year from 1999-2003 the band played a “secret” show at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. These shows became well known for the large amount of covers and the extreme level of the band’s drunkenness. While the drinking plays a factor in the quality of some of the covers, a good portion of these songs are well-played (especially considering that the band had usually only rehearsed them together once before showtime), and the song selection is beyond reproach. Ryan Adams and Big Star feature prominently, but the band has also covered Bob Dylan, Madonna, and Steve Earle among others. Enjoy a couple of these rowdy versions below and seek out the rest of the shows for more of the same (here’s one recording to get you started).

MP3: Counting Crows – Night Moves (Bob Seger cover)

There are plenty more worthy Counting Crows covers out there, so these are just a few to whet your appetite. Post your favorites below if we missed them!

Check out more Counting Crows at their website.

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