A veteran band mines old ideas for new directions. Results may vary.
Counting Crows have done most of their best work at their stylistic extremes, be it the somber, melancholy, reflective ballads and mid-tempo numbers ("Raining in Baltimore," "Recovering the Satellites") or their anthemic, melancholy rockers ("Up All Night," "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby"), so it was probably only a matter of time before they pushed this idea to its logical limit. With Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, the band enforces a full diametrical split to mostly successful but, as usual, wildly mixed results.
Vaguely following an arc of planning, partying, indulging, regretting, and moving on, the raucous first half and somber second half make for an interesting concept to say the least. The band kicks off in full-on Heartbreakers/E Street mode, firing on all cylinders and rocking at times as hard as they ever have. At its literal and musical peak, the album flexes its muscle with the one-two punch of the rapid-fire distortionfest "Cowboys" to end Saturday Nights and the gorgeous folk-rock of "Washington Square" to kick off Sunday Mornings. In these nine minutes and forty seconds, the Crows pack in absolutely everything they've ever been good at without retreading any of the angels/little girls/Jesus imagery that have become singer and chief songwriter Adam Duritz' stock and trade since the group's earliest days.
As with most of the Counting Crows' catalog, the problem is not in any specific song or moment, as it's obvious every member is giving it their all without shame or hesitation. Where things get (arguably) messy is in the self-referential and continuously recycled lyrical motifs and the arrangements that at times sound more than a bit labored, as though the band feared each riff or melody may be the last one they ever write so they might as well squeeze as much as they can from it. This sort of instrumental fatalism may turn casual fans off, but the hardcore will undoubtedly find an honesty in the music that extends beyond Duritz' unabashed soul-baring. Even so, this is still totally confusing since a) Duritz has proven repeatedly to be one of the most gifted songwriters of the past 20 years and b) every member of that band is a remarkably talented musician in their own right.
In a somewhat ironic, somewhat cruel final touch, UK editions include the semi-lost gem "Baby, I'm a Big Star Now" from certain pressings of 1999's This Desert Life, in which the Crows rock without being overt, bemoan without whining, and straddle the fine line between their two selves nearly as well as they ever have, all with the help of a pre-chorus whose piano line is possibly the finest in their entire discography. The track's inclusion is a nice treat, but it's hard not to sigh and wonder if it's a case of it being a good thing that they've released it to a wider audience, or a bad thing that they've spent the last decade still trying to clear the same hurdle. They may have set the bar too high by having a masterpiece of a debut album, but Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings proves that even 15 years on, they're still certainly doing something right.