Return to Form and More of the Same
New Ones from Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows

I just realized I never got around to penning my quarterly new releases list for summer.

Naturally, I don’t have the space to do so this week, but I thought I might highlight some of the new discs I’m most looking forward to in the second half of the year. The rest of summer is pretty full, with new ones by Beth Orton, Filter, Starflyer 59, Duncan Sheik, Joan Osborne, the Black Crowes and Coldplay, and so far the Top 10 List this year is looking pretty strong. Here are a few more that will likely vie for the top five:

Aimee Mann comes back on August 27 with Lost In Space, reportedly picking up where her last great album, Bachelor No. 2, left off. Amazingly, if this hits its release date, it will be her first album since her 1991 debut to be released on time, and since it’s on her own label (SuperEgo), it likely will be her first to not get dumped by some stupid record exec.

Peter Mulvey, Boston’s best-kept secret, returns as well on August 13 with a live album recorded in the Boston subways called Ten Thousand Mornings. If you haven’t heard his last swell album, The Trouble With Poets, I highly recommend you get to and order that puppy. He has a terrific voice, a unique acoustic style and a great way with words. Read some of the lyrics on his site – that alone should sell you.

The Levellers, those scruffy fiddle-rocking Brits, have a new album called Green Blade Rising that comes out across the pond on September 24. Of course, there is no U.S. release date, which is a shame, since the band has been going through an artistic metamorphosis lately that resulted in one of their best albums, 2000’s Hello Pig. Another band to hear, if you haven’t –

Ours, the musical find of last year, releases their sophomore album Precious on November 5. If you miss Jeff Buckley and wish that the young’uns would show some respect to his legacy, you need to hear this band.

Ben Folds puts out his first-ever live album on October 8, bestowing it with the imaginative title Ben Folds Live. This disc was recorded on his most recent tour, which was split into full-band nights and more intimate shows with just Ben and his piano. Expect the album to reflect that dichotomy, and to sport its share of inventive reinterpretations and covers. Oh, and swearing.

And just like last year, Folds and Tori Amos are releasing discs one week apart. (Those two really should get together for a piano duel or something, kind of a Billy and Elton: The Next Generation.) Her new one is called Scarlet’s Walk and hits on October 15. It’s been preceded by a single, called “A Sorta Fairytale,” which uberfan Jay Tucker informs me is super-commercial. Feh.

That’s it for now, but here are a couple more contestants for this year’s list. It just keeps getting better…

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A quick digression, though, and then we’ll get cracking. Remember last year, when Wilco announced that Reprise Records had, in its infinite wisdom, dropped the band’s fourth and best album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for being too musically adventurous? Remember how it took almost a year to get the disc out, and when it was finally released in April, it was met with widespread critical acclaim, and an almost dumbstruck disbelief that anyone could have seen fit to dump this record?

Are you ready to do it all over again?

Unbelievably, it’s happened a second time. The band’s fifth effort, Down With Wilco, has been dropped from Nonesuch Records, the label that released YHF. Jeff Tweedy is, naturally, pissed off and has already started working on getting this album out elsewhere. (Perhaps yet another Warner Bros. subsidiary?) I’m appalled that this has happened again, but I’m sure Aimee Mann is nodding her head and silently urging Tweedy to start his own label already. Down with the man, I say. Give us our damn Wilco.

I mention this because this week saw the release of a disc with a similar history. In 1999, the Dave Matthews Band huddled in a studio with Steve Lillywhite (a swell producer who has worked with Peter Gabriel, R.E.M., and Phish, to name a few) to craft the follow-up to their best album, 1997’s Before These Crowded Streets. They emerged with 12 unfinished songs, opting to shelve the project entirely, hook up with glossy popster Glen Ballard (Alanis’ guru), and sell out entirely with the crappy Everyday.

But wait. The Lillywhite Sessions, as the original dozen tracks came to be known, ended up all over the internet, and fans far and wide declared them Everyday‘s superior in every way. Matthews, unhappy to say the least about the leak, couldn’t help but notice that the fanbase rejected Everyday and kept downloading these other songs, and so it was a no-brainer (especially for a band that released an album called Listener Supported) that the quintet would finish the job Lillywhite started and officially release it.

And here it is. It’s called Busted Stuff, and while it’s not a straight release of the Lillywhite material, it’s pretty close. Nine of the 12 Lillywhite songs are here, in slightly altered versions, and they sit alongside two new ones. Also, as incentive to buy (not download) the disc, the band has included extensive CD-ROM material and a bonus DVD of concert footage. If this kind of value is an unintended effect of rampant downloading, then I say keep it up. Make ’em work for your dollar, it’s the American way.

The absence of Lillywhite from the Busted Stuff sessions may lead you to believe these are watered-down versions, full of Everyday‘s pop goop. Wrong-o. Except for a few (okay, a lot of) lyrical changes, the nine Lillywhite tunes remain intact, and serve as Exhibit A that Everyday was a drastic veer from course. “Grey Street” is a classic DMB song, with memorable stop-time leads; “Captain” rages like the best stuff on Before These Crowded Streets; and the powerhouse closer, “Bartender,” lives up to the hype. The new songs, the epic “You Never Know” and the single, “Where Are You Going,” thankfully sound like the DMB of old.

The real difference between the albums, though, is that Everyday felt like a Matthews solo project, and Busted Stuff feels like the work of a democracy. The former album displayed virtually none of the talents of Matthews’ amazing bandmates. Not so Busted Stuff, which shows off the ambidexterity of the awesome Carter Beauford on drums, and gives plenty of melodic and improv space to saxophonist Leroi Moore and violinist Boyd Tinsley. The album is remarkably concise, much like its predecessor, but it feels looser, less obviously calculated. It’s still not as great as Streets, but it’s a fine return to form.

Matthews, of course, doesn’t see it that way, claiming that this album is a product of fan pressure more than artistic expression. It remains to be seen which path the DMB will continue on, though I’d really like to see them reconcile the two extremes. Everyday is largely a big pile of happy, while Busted Stuff is lyrically dark and meditative, and while I prefer the latter, I can see how it would start to wear on Matthews to keep his pissy face on all the time. In the last 18 months, we’ve been handed two albums that sound like the work of two different bands. It should be interesting to see how the DMB tries to bring them together.

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Can you believe there are seven members in Counting Crows now?

They started as a quintet, and since their last album, 1999’s wondrous This Desert Life, they’ve added their third guitarist, a guy named David Immergluck. It would be nice to say I noticed, but the band’s fourth, the just-released Hard Candy, sounds just like their third, which sounds just like their second, and on and on. Steve Lillywhite, who seems to be everywhere this week, produced Hard Candy, but likewise, it never seems to matter who mans the boards for this group – they always sound basically the same.

This is in no way, shape or form a complaint, mind you. The Crows have been building their own little universe somewhere to the left of the radio-poppers for 10 years now, and they believe in musical isolationism. It wouldn’t matter if the entire world suddenly embraced polka and every other type of music dropped out of the charts, Counting Crows would continue making artful pop records like this one, and their grateful fans would keep snapping them up.

It’s hard to describe the appeal of Counting Crows, because it seems all together separate from the actual 13 songs presented here. Most of it is all wrapped up in Adam Duritz, one of the best singers to emerge in the ’90s. Like Grant Lee Phillips, he has an incontrovertible voice – you somehow believe every word he sings. When he announces in the band’s new single that “American Girls” make him “feel so incredible,” it comes off as soul-baring, rather than cliched. In the same song, when he confides that “I could have been anyone you see, I wish it was anyone but me,” it breaks your heart.

Duritz ends up breaking your heart a whole bunch of times on Hard Candy, which, despite its easy-to-digest title, is anything but a sugar rush. As usual, half the album is given over to slow, sad numbers about pain and escape, and you’d swear while a number like “Goodnight L.A.” or “Black and Blue” is playing that you’ve never heard anything more beautiful in your whole life. If you look at them with a critical eye, these are simple little songs wrapped around simple little confessions. If you give them access to your heart, however, they’re extraordinary.

And that’s what’s so hard to describe about them. Yes, there are a few new wrinkles here, like the almost-’80s-sounding “New Frontier” or the surprisingly successful hidden cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” but it’s the simpler, smaller things about Hard Candy that make it a treasure. Songs that I wouldn’t accept from anyone else sound gorgeous coming from this band, even ones with titles like “Good Time” and “If I Could Give All My Love.” The best way I can describe it is this: You know those moments at the end of your favorite television episodes, where the main characters silently reminisce and often engage in tearful hugs? And you know how those moments are as emotionally manipulative as anything else on TV, but they get you in the heart anyway, and you find yourself affected in spite of yourself? Counting Crows write and play the music that goes over those ending sequences, the kind of music that makes you nostalgic for the best moments in your life, the kind that gently finds its way past your defenses and into your emotions.

And that’s the best I can come up with. Hard Candy is, in every way, just another Counting Crows album, and if you ever liked them before, you’ll like this one. If I’m right about them, and they never leave the little private universe they’ve been creating, and every subsequent album from them sounds just like the first four, I won’t be disappointed in the least. In fact, I’ll treasure each one of them.

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Next week, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, probably.

A quick note before I go: Not Lame Records wrote me today to let me know that the long-delayed Jellyfish box set, Fan Club, should be winging its way to me next month. If you haven’t heard of this project, it spans four discs (twice the number of the band’s official output) and covers demos, live tracks and unreleased recordings from the best pop band since the Beatles. In their time, they only released an hour and a half of music, but everyone (and I mean everyone) should hear this stuff. A full report is forthcoming once Fan Club hits my desk.

See you in line Tuesday morning.