Back for the Attack
R.E.M. and Counting Crows Return With a Vengeance

So this is my favorite story of the week. Apparently, if the ever-reclusive Axl Rose somehow finishes up and releases the 13-years-in-the-making Guns ‘n’ Roses opus Chinese Democracy, everyone in America will get a can of Dr. Pepper for free. (Well, everyone except original guitarist Slash, and one-time guitarist Buckethead, who left the band years ago.)

It’s pretty much a safe bet on Dr. Pepper’s part – Axl will never finish this thing, and the only way we’ll ever hear what he’s been working on for the past decade and a half is if he dies and someone else releases it. But it would be fun to imagine which would be the worse experience: listening to the no-doubt incredibly awful Democracy, or choking down the carbonated cough syrup that apparently would come with it. (Don’t you want to be a Pepper too? Yeah, not so much.)

I’ve said this before, but we’re more likely to see actual Chinese democracy than we are to see Chinese Democracy.

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Below you will find my first quarter report, a look at the top 10 list for the year if I were forced to release it now. I said in January that I was keeping my expectations low for 2008, so as not to jinx anything. 2007 barreled out of the gate with some excellent records, then petered out by the end, leaving me to shake my head at my own breathless pronouncements in the first half of the year.

So yeah, no way was I doing that again. Thankfully, 2008’s lineup looked reasonably mediocre back in January, so I could safely adopt an air of indifference – this year isn’t going to be that great, and I’m happier that way, I said.

But now I find myself at the end of March, composing a top 10 list I already like quite a bit, and coming up with a couple of honorable mentions already to boot. I’m counting the number of albums I plan to buy in April, many of which I’m expecting will knock me out, and then I’m reading up and listening to snippets of other records set to come out in ’08, records by the likes of Aimee Mann, Ben Folds, the 77s, Portishead, Death Cab for Cutie… and all of a sudden, I feel like I have to come out and say that 2008 has been excellent so far.

Damn. Hope that doesn’t ruin it for the back half of the year.

This week and next, I’m going to be all positive all the time. My plan is to recommend five very good albums to you – two this week, three next. But a quick glance at the list below should give you a sneak preview of one of next week’s subjects, a record that surprised the living hell out of me. Stay tuned for the stunned-grin review of that one.

This week is all about comebacks, and we start with R.E.M.

Now, listen, I’ve been an R.E.M. fan since high school, and one thing I can tell you, their catalog has peaks and valleys. The boys from Athens have made some excellent records, like Murmur, Lifes Rich Pageant, and Automatic for the People. But they’ve made some real turds as well, like Green, Monster, and their last one, Around the Sun. There are few bands who put their audiences through endurance tests like R.E.M., and yet, there are few bands who also reward loyalty the way they do.

Sure, I’ve had my faith tested before. I rank Automatic for the People among the very best albums of the 1990s – its wispy beauty is unmatched in the band’s catalog, and it truly stood out among the rip-snorting noise polluting the airwaves when it was released in 1992. So imagine my dismay when I heard the follow-up, the determinedly noisy and almost entirely song-deficient Monster. My hatred for that record seeped over into my initial dislike for its successor, New Adventures in Hi-Fi – it took years for me to admit that one was pretty good.

But the past 10 years have proven the most difficult. First, drummer Bill Berry quit the band for health reasons, leaving them a three-legged beast. The remaining trio replaced Berry with a drum machine initially, for the icy, remote Up in 1999. They then papered over his absence with globs of production on 2001’s Reveal – I know that one made my top 10 list, but time has lessened my appreciation of it. And finally, they gave up trying all together on 2004’s Around the Sun, the lamest, saddest, worst R.E.M. album ever. I hoped at the time they were headed somewhere better, but I didn’t know when (or if) they’d get there.

Guess what – they’ve arrived. On Tuesday, R.E.M. will release Accelerate, their 14th album. But they’ve already uploaded it to iLike, a music networking tool that works with iTunes, and I’ve taken the opportunity to hear the whole thing. If the last decade has been their deepest valley, Accelerate is one of their highest peaks, a sterling return to form that has these elder statesmen of indie-pop rocking like a band half their age.

I kid you not, Accelerate is LOUD. But it’s not that annoying, processed, buzz-saw kind of loud that Monster was. This is the let’s-annoy-the-neighbors kind of loud you find with the best garage bands, married to tunes only experienced professionals know how to write. This is the kind of loud that comes with youthful energy, a reinvigoration of the soul, and a fuck-it-all attitude, and I can’t tell you how good it is to hear that kind of sound from R.E.M. again.

The most obvious change this time is that they’ve finally let touring drummer Bill Rieflin pound the skins for a whole record. Rieflin used to play with Ministry, so he’s used to loud, and he jump-starts R.E.M. into playing like a band again. Opener “Living Well’s the Best Revenge” is a snide nose-thumb to critics, and is the group’s most energetic starting gun since… well, maybe ever. Much of this record captures the spirit of my favorite R.E.M. song, the explosive “These Days,” from Pageant. Yeah, they sound that good again.

Here’s “Man Sized Wreath,” a takedown of King Bush II with an excellent chorus. Here’s the sharp-as-a-whip single “Supernatural Superserious,” which sees Mike Mills taking his rightful place as backing vocalist again – he soars behind Michael Stipe, giving the song a lift its chorus doesn’t quite deserve. (This is actually kind of a typical R.E.M. song, but since they haven’t written one of those in a decade, I’ll take this one.) Here’s “Hollow Man,” which begins with a deceptive piano part but quickly piles on the six-string heroics. That song is the perfect synthesis of where they are and where they were – without the fiery electric guitars, it could fit on Reveal. But it’s amazing what those fiery electric guitars do for a song like this.

There are slower moments, but far from dragging the album down, they provide its heart. “Until the Day is Done” is an Automatic-worthy acoustic piece, and “Sing for the Submarine” is a complex mid-tempo mini-epic. But before long, they’re back to rocking out – the amazing “Horse to Water” is a punked-up highlight, full of spit and bile. The album ends with a song I couldn’t stand in its live incarnation, “I’m Gonna DJ.” On the R.E.M. silliness scale, it’s somewhere between “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People,” but damn if it doesn’t do the job, closing out the album with a riotous racket. (And a shouted “Yeah!”)

Best of all, in direct contrast to Around the Sun’s seemingly endless hour, Accelerate is in and out in 35 minutes. That’s just enough time to make you want to hit play again, and not enough to screw up a good thing by over-thinking it. Eleven songs, most hovering around the two-to-three-minute range, all with great melodies and the best Peter Buck guitar work in many a moon. It steps up to the plate, knocks a couple skyward, and then goes home early, job done. Cut, print, and there you have the best R.E.M. album in a decade, hands down.

I know, I know. Next week’s albums are nice and all, but you want to hear about something you can walk into a store and buy right now. I just happen to have another band right here that’s made their best album in 10 years, a band a lot of people have written off. If R.E.M. are my high school years, then Counting Crows are my college years, and with Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, they sound better than they have since… well, my college years.

I’m sure by this point everyone believes they have Counting Crows figured out. By the time 2002’s Hard Candy came out, the band had fallen into a predictable routine. It was a routine I liked, so I didn’t care – Hard Candy sounded like a slightly smoother version of their first three albums, and I figured Adam Duritz, his dreadlocks and his band would continue on like that for the rest of their career.

Not that that would have been a bad thing – their first two albums, August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites, were such era-defining works that matching them, let alone bettering them, was kind of a fool’s errand. This Desert Life was very good. Hard Candy was very good. Duritz and company wrote the same kind of emotional American pop song again and again, but it was a good kind of pop song, and Duritz’ aching, pleading voice is always a treat to hear.

In 2002, when reviewing Hard Candy, I finally hit upon my unique description of Counting Crows. They’re the band, I wrote, that writes the songs for the emotional montages at the end of episodes of long-running, character-driven dramas. So what do they do? They go ahead and put out an album without a single one of those montage songs on it. And it may be the best thing they’ve ever done.

Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings is two records on one disc. The first, Saturday Nights, is a six-song sequence of uptempo numbers, and some of these songs rock harder than anything since “Angels of the Silences.” Opener “1492” practically erupts, with layers and layers of electric guitar swamping just about everything else. Duritz all but spits out the lyrics on this one, an elliptical poem about disappearing into silence. It’s hook-free, it has no chorus to speak of, and it stomps all over your ideas of what Counting Crows sound like.

“Hanging Tree” is the same, but it has a killer chorus, one of the album’s best. “Los Angeles” is the weak link, a song co-written with Ryan Adams – the styles don’t exactly mesh, but the song is good anyway, and has a classic Duritz lyrical conceit: “If you see my picture in a magazine… I’m just trying to make some sense outta me…”

From there, it’s smooth sailing through choppy waters. “Sundays” starts off like a radio-rocker, but the chorus is fantastic. “Insignificant” is louder and better, Duritz whipping out a monster hook in the refrain. “I don’t want to feel so different,” he sings, “but I don’t want to be insignificant…” And “Cowboys” is the cousin of “1492,” another delirious, rocking ramble that finds Duritz making a list of “what I should’ve been but I’m not.” The last minute contains a ripping guitar solo and some unrestrained screams from the frontman.

Through it all, Duritz provides maybe the only unchanged link to the sound of Counting Crows albums past. The rest has been surrounded by electric guitars – much of it sounds like it could have been produced by Matthew Sweet. (It was actually produced by Gil Norton, who manned the boards for the Pixies’ last three albums.) I don’t want to give the impression that this is raw and rough – it isn’t, it’s fully produced – but it’s some of the loudest material the band has done.

That’s not the surprise, though. The second record, Sunday Mornings, strips away everything identifiably Counting Crows and recasts them as a country-folk band for much of the running time. And the results are beautiful. “Washington Square” sets the tone – it’s a spare, simple folk song performed on acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, banjo, piano and nothing else. Duritz takes the song’s simple framework and brings an astounding amount of depth to it. It’s a lovely little piece.

Sunday Mornings continues in that vein for the next two songs, both pretty tunes, and if it had gone on like that, it would still have been decent. But with “Anyone But You,” the band starts building the sound up, and taking some interesting left turns. The centerpiece of Sunday Mornings, “Anyone But You” starts out like an Aimee Mann song, all acoustics and Chamberlain strings, but by the end, Duritz is imitating an entire brass section with his voice.

“Le Ballet D’Or” is even cooler, a sinister acoustic piece that takes some fascinating melodic detours. But it’s all prelude for “On a Tuesday in Amsterdam Long Ago,” a piano-vocal piece that truly showcases Duritz’ voice. He sounds like he’s about to shatter here, and that’s the sound that initially gripped me – this is “Raining in Baltimore” and “Colorblind,” but even more naked and powerful. The album closes with “Come Around,” another Norton production (the rest of Sunday Mornings was produced by Brian Deck), and one that I bet was initially on the Saturday Nights half. But it brings things full circle by the end, like closing credits music.

Here’s the thing: Counting Crows is a band often accused of driving right down the middle of the road. The last two albums especially have been dismissed by many as tepid pop affairs. This one cannot be. It is an album of extremes, shifting from the explosive and torrential to the sparse and quivering. Pretty much none of this is what radio will expect, but long-time fans will find in this album the creative spark and emotional resonance they fell in love with. It is drastically different, yet unmistakably Counting Crows, and by shaking things up, they may have made their best record yet.

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Okay, it’s time for the list. As mentioned, I have a pair of honorable mentions first, two records that are actually exceptional, but currently rank as #11 and #12. They are Distortion, by the Magnetic Fields, and Small-Time Machine, by Cassettes Won’t Listen.

As for the rest, I fully expect (and certainly hope) this list will change as the year rolls along. It includes one album that isn’t out yet, one that isn’t out in the U.S., and one that I haven’t reviewed. (Next week, next week!) But if I had to release the top 10 list right now, here’s what it would look like:

#10. Richard Julian, Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes.
#9. American Music Club, The Golden Age.
#8. Nada Surf, Lucky.
#7. Panic at the Disco, Pretty. Odd.
#6. The Black Crowes, Warpaint.
#5. Vampire Weekend.
#4. R.E.M., Accelerate.
#3. Joe Jackson, Rain.
#2. Counting Crows, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings.
#1. The Feeling, Join With Us.

And there you have it. Next week, I hope to get some Doctor Who going – I’m really behind right now. And I’ll be talking about three sophomore records (including my current #7) that blow their respective predecessors out of the water.

See you in line Tuesday morning.