The Counting Crows Lighten Up ... A Little

Lead Singer Adam Duritz Emerges From the Doldrums for "This Desert Life"
Posted Oct 26, 1999 at 12:00am
The Counting Crows' 1993 debut, August and Everything After, cast lead singer and songwriter Adam Duritz as a confused, hypersensitive, depressive struggling to figure out what he was going to do with his life. Thanks to an endless supply of catchy melodies and classic rock riffs, the album struck a chord with people -- lots of people -- and went on to sell more than seven million copies. For the San Francisco band's 1996 follow-up, Recovering the Satellites, Duritz didn't cheer up much; though he no longer wondered about his future, he was still a guy who thought too much, felt too hard, and wasn't afraid to tell people about it. But these days Duritz wants everyone to know something else: he's not the miserable bastard he often seems.

"I don't sit around moping all day long," he says with a laugh, from his home outside of Los Angeles. The band's latest album, This Desert Life (due Nov. 2), is proof positive of this. While Duritz has hardly abandoned his practice of turning naked confessions into probing lyrics, the entire album is less heavy-handed than either of its predecessors.

The laid-back vibe can be attributed largely to the atmosphere surrounding the album's recording. Their third studio effort found the band -- Duritz, guitarists David Bryson and Dan Vickrey, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham, bassist Matt Malley, and drummer Ben Mize -- kicking back in a large house in the Hollywood Hills, spending nearly as much time swimming, playing cards and clowning around as they did rehearsing and recording.

"I had a lot of fun making it," Duritz admits. "I think that's reflected in the songwriting -- there's a little more joy to it."

That joy can be heard on the bouncy opener, "Hanginaround," and the propulsive epic that follows it, "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby." Throughout the album, the Crows' penchant for jangly guitar hooks is buoyed by an increased focus on Duritz's and Gillingham's lively piano playing. They chose to have a good friend of the band, Cracker lead singer David Lowery, co-produce the album along with Dennis Herring (who'd worked with Lowery extensively in the past), which at times enhanced the relaxed atmosphere -- and at other times kept things pretty tense.

"You have to remember that I'm a lead singer and David's a lead singer and Dennis thinks of himself as a lead singer -- that's three prima donnas in a room," Duritz says chuckling. "So even though we're all friends, sometimes we were at each others' throats."

According to Duritz, the band also hoped to inject some fresh ideas into the record by taking a different approach than they had in the past.

"We didn't have anything written when we went in to make this album. I wanted to encourage a lot of experimentation and open-mindedness. On the first couple albums we were trying to capture a live atmosphere -- to give you lots of places where you could hear people bouncing off and reacting to each other. On this one, rather than record songs that way, we were trying to create songs that way."

It was also an approach that demanded more input from the rest of the band, which has been a goal of Duritz's ever since the press anointed him the group's de facto leader after their first album. It wasn't an unfair assessment at the time, since Duritz had written much of August by himself, but he's always wanted the Crows to be more of a band.

"I never wanted to be a solo artist," he contends. "You want to be part of a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts. That demands that everybody really contributes. One of the reasons I wanted to not have anything prepared before we went in is that way, we'd have no prejudices, including myself. I'd have less of a chance of shutting down everybody's ideas if I didn't have any preconceptions."

As a result, This Desert Life is the band's most fleshed-out work yet, replacing the often skeletal, folksy arrangements of their past work with lush, vibrant tunes. Duritz is satisfied with the final product but balks at the idea that he's left his problems behind him for good.

"Am I a happy guy, period?" he muses. "No, but I'm happy when I'm playing music. Your own personal difficulties don't get solved by record sales. People say, 'How can you have problems when you're famous?' But you can be a famous asshole just like you were a non-famous asshole. I'm just still kind of a famous asshole in a lot of ways."

Written by DAVID PEISNER for News

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