Just Another Week
Some Soul, Some Covers and a Look Ahead

Well, 2012, you’ve been a bit of a disappointment so far.

Not as far as life is concerned. You’ve been doing OK there. I have a good job and good friends and every reason to wake up ecstatic every day. But musically? Not so much, 2012. I just looked at the First Quarter Report from last year – by this time, we already had the Over the Rhine album, the R.E.M., the PJ Harvey, the Dears and the Decemberists. This year’s quarter-time statement isn’t quite as good, I have to say. It’s a top 10 list with Van Halen on it. ‘Nuff said.

But there’s still plenty of time to redeem yourself, 2012. You’ve certainly started down that path, thankfully – in the next two columns I’ll be reviewing two of my favorites of the year so far. For the most part, though, the records I’ve expected to be brilliant have been mediocre, and the things I’ve enjoyed have largely been from left field. So I keep on scanning the upcoming releases, and wondering whether the ones I’m excited about will be any good.

I mean, you know by now how much I’m anticipating that new Choir album in a week or so. And that new Marillion record sometime this fall. Will they be worth it? No idea. I’ve heard the single from the new Keane album, Strangeland, and it’s marvelous. Will the album follow suit? Man, I hope so. I’ve liked everything I’ve heard from Rufus Wainwright’s new one, Out of the Game, and Jack White’s solo record, Blunderbuss, too. But this year, I just can’t be certain of anything until I hear it.

Some other things I’m looking forward to: Beach House, Best Coast and Garbage are putting new ones out all on the same day (May 15). Three very different bands with great female singers. Mount Eerie will release two records this year, starting with Clear Moon on May 22. Sigur Ros has a surprise new one on May 29, along with Sun Kil Moon, Regina Spektor and Rush, finally. The Walkmen return with Heaven on June 5 (my birthday), and the great Jukebox the Ghost resurface a week later with Safe Travels. And then there are new things by Fiona Apple and Joe Jackson on the horizon.

So, 2012, you should be a really good year. On paper, you rock. So let’s get it together. I expect the Second Quarter Report to be a thing of beauty. No excuses. Dismissed.

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People often ask me how I hear about new bands. The truth is, I put in a lot of research time, reading reviews and listening to singles. I probably follow up on only about 25 percent of what I sample. It’s almost a full-time job staying somewhat current, and I’m not even close to the level of some people I know. Yeah, it’s just a lot of hard work.

But then, sometimes, it happens purely by accident.

Last month, my friend Kevin Trudo played a solo show, opening up for a band from Chicago. I’d never heard of them, but I loved their name: The Right Now. That has to be one of the finest band names I’ve ever heard, actually. It’s immediate, it’s punchy, and it promises a good time. The band turned out to be an eight-member neo-soul outfit with a singer who could win American Idol any year she wanted to. And while they put on a good show, I just wasn’t feeling it.

On a whim, though, I ordered both of their records, and I’m glad I did. The Right Now comes off much better on disc, for some reason. It may be that the studio allows them to use vintage-sounding soul production, whereas on stage they can come off like a particularly tight wedding band. Whatever the reason, I really like The Right Now on record, and heartily recommend them.

The new album is graced with the awesome title The Right Now Gets Over You. As you could probably tell by the name, it’s an old-school you-done-me-wrong record, full of songs with names like “Should’ve Told Me,” “I Could Kiss You (I Could Cry),” and “’Til It Went Wrong.” It’s a looser, funkier record than their debut, Carry Me Home, and it’s a little less hooky, but it succeeds on pure attitude. Just check out “Tell Everyone the Truth,” a classic-sounding little number with some top-notch horns and Stefanie Berecz singing her heart out. This is the sound they’ve been after, and they do it very well.

There are a couple of missteps on this record. “I Could Kiss You (I Could Cry)” is essentially hook-free, and lacks the energy this band brings to every other track. And “Higher” is a trippy experiment that doesn’t quite work. But otherwise, Gets Over You is a top-notch album. Besides “Tell Everyone the Truth,” you get the slinky “Half as Much,” with those spectral backing vocals. You get the delightful dance number “He Used to Be,” and the effervescent pop of “Good Man,” on which the horn section shines. Throughout, the band just clicks, particularly the rhythm section, and the all-purpose keyboards of Brendan O’Connell, the chief songwriter.

I found The Right Now by accident, but they’ve made me a fan. Both of their albums are fun, well-crafted, soulful affairs, and I’m excited to hear where they go next. Check them out at www.therightnow.com.

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I don’t know if this is a controversial opinion or not, but I think Counting Crows is a great band.

They’ve made five albums, and I don’t dislike any of them. I flat-out love a few of them, especially This Desert Life and the latest, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings. Adam Duritz is a one-of-a-kind singer, his band is tight when they need to be and sloppy when they want, and they just write some great songs. I listened to “Amy Hit the Atmosphere” again tonight. That tune is just perfect.

So I’ll buy anything they do, even something like Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), their newly-released covers album. I’m not sure the idea of an hour of covers from this band would be an enticing notion to many people, but I was pretty interested to hear this, especially since I only recognized five of these 15 songs by their titles. You can tell a lot about a band by the covers they choose, and Underwater Sunshine outs the Crows as a traditionalist rock band with some interesting influences.

But what’s fantastic about this album is the sound, the vibe. The guys in Counting Crows have been known to produce their records pretty heavily, but this… this sounds like they recorded it live in about a week. And the energy is just pouring off it. This is what it sounds like when a great band gets in a room and just plays. This is the band’s first independent release, and if this is them starting as they mean to go on, well, I’m on board.

Duritz acknowledges that a lot of the songs chosen for Underwater Sunshine aren’t well known. They cover tunes from members’ side projects and former bands. They cover Dawes and the Romany Rye, two relatively unknown bands from the last few years. (The Dawes song they chose isn’t even on one of their albums – it was recorded for a Daytrotter session.) They pick a Travis b-side. Duritz swears they’re not being intentionally obscure, these are just the songs they like, and that’s clear in the vibe of the record.

While I enjoy hearing the Crows rip through these songs, this album works best for me when they put their own spin on tunes I know and love. The first of these in the running order is “Meet on the Ledge,” the Fairport Convention classic, and they knock it out of the park – they make it louder and rougher and more ragged. They do the same to Gram Parsons’ immortal “Return of the Grievous Angel” – Duritz sings the living hell out of this one.

The Crows strip down to acoustics for the Small Faces’ “Ooh La La,” and the Pure Prairie League classic “Amie.” They rip through Teenage Fanclub’s “Start Again,” and shimmy their way across Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” first recorded by the Byrds. (I’ve always said, if you want to hear a good Dylan song, wait for someone to cover it.) David Immergluck just attacks his mandolin. If you’ve never heard anyone attack a mandolin, well, you should hear this.

But my favorite thing here is the closer, a reverent yet spirited version of Big Star’s incredible “The Ballad of El Goodo.” I’m still missing Alex Chilton, so to hear a band I admire pay tribute to him like this is very moving. “El Goodo” is a gorgeous song, and this take is simply wonderful. “Ain’t no one going to turn me round…” I just love this.

So yeah, it’s a covers album, a risky proposition at the best of times. But Counting Crows take the opportunity to show both their impeccable taste and their highly underrated musicianship. This is what they sound like when they’re just playing for the love of it. And that’s the best – when a band loves the music they’re playing so much, you can feel it. It’s there in every note of Underwater Sunshine, and it makes me love this band even more.

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Next week, local superstar Andrea Dawn. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.