Counting Crows' seventh studio album 'Somewhere Under Wonderland' is a welcome return for Adam Duritz's band. While it's certainly not a record that's taken six years to write ('Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings', the Crows' last full length batch of original material was released in 2008), this new release has been worth the wait. The tracks here have been informed by the intervening years of touring and switching record deals. There's a more independent spirit evident in these nine songs and, although they've never bettered their mercurial debut in the studio, some moments here certainly come close.
It's also a bold album. Take, for example, opening track and lead single 'Palisades Park'. At eight and a half minutes, it's not the instant choice for an opening statement, but somehow it works and remains one of the best compositions here. It opens with an elongated instrumental section of gin-soaked trumpet and piano, which sounds like a piece of Tom Waits reportage from the gutter. Suddenly, a bolder piano line takes over accompanied by Duritz's urgent delivery of fever dream lyrics, featuring friends and lost love. His words are littered with pop culture references. A personal favourite is the veiled compliment of, "You're a downtown pride, fully amplified Clyde. Gin-tight and ageing, but well preserved". The bar-band sing-along chorus takes you into more familiar Crows territory and there's an unmistakable feeling of self-reference throughout. At times, 'Palisades Park' strikes you as a companion piece to 'Anna Begins', while seemingly echoing the lyrics of 'Have You Seen Me Lately'. But this isn't a way to re-live past glories, rather a successful attempt to embed the track into Duritz's existing songbook.
Despite the perceived excess of the running time of the opening track, the remainder of 'Somewhere Under Wonderland' is surprisingly concise. Clocking in at just over forty minutes, the nine songs develop the themes of lost protagonists and their redemption to an increasingly impressive soundtrack of guitar solos and thundering organs. Duritz's often humour-tinged tales of alienation are densely packed with diverse references that take some time and attention to unpick (for example, 'Elvis Went To Hollywood' manages to mention Alex Chilton and Victor Frankenstein in the same line). However, whether narrating traditional rock songs or country ballads, Duritz's approach is hardly pretentious, rewarding is a far more suitable description.
The brevity of the record may have led to a bit of head-scratching at Capitol with regard to creating a 'deluxe' version of the album that plays to nearer the hour mark, so, as a token of goodwill, two demo tracks have also been appended to the record. In truth, they're nice and stripped down affairs, but superfluous. Especially considering that 'Earthquake Driver' and 'Scarecrow' aren't the obvious choice of songs that you immediately want to revisit. They also detract from the subdued beauty of the piano and banjo ballad 'Possibility Days' which perfectly rounds off the actual album. Whoever said that, in the digital age, album sequencing was a lost art? Certainly not Adam Duritz when writing his records, which don't really require or benefit from bonus content.
With a recommendation to opt for the standard version of the record, there's much to like on 'Somewhere Under Wonderland'. It doesn't try to upset Counting Crows' applecart, but it is certainly a worthy addition to their catalogue. Somehow, despite a largely unchanged formula, the Crows' music hasn't dated in the same way as many of their nineties counterparts. Perhaps that's a testament to the songwriting, or the timeless nature of the vein of Americana they've tapped into. Whatever it is, I'd be more than happy if they continued to produce albums that sound as good as this for many years to come.
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