Drawing a bead on the narrow singer/songwriter tunnel between Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison (with an excessive debt to all three), San Francisco’s Counting Crows are a middle-aged rock critic’s wet dream: a commercially certified young band with poetic intelligence, rustic resonance, credible passion and excellent musicianship. Y’know, the kind of band that used to walk the earth back when music was really good. Early fans were seen clutching their copies of Tupelo Honey, Blood on the Tracks, The Heart of Saturday Night and Nebraska as they sang the praises of August and Everything After. (Alternate title: 1984 and Everything Before.) As produced by T-Bone Burnett, the pristinely rendered folk-rock grooves are smooth and the singing assured. Yes, singer Adam Duritz sounds like Van Morrison, complete with the “sha-la-la” refrain of the catchy hit single, “Mr. Jones.” So go tell a Pavement fan.
After a strong beginning (“Round Here,” “Mr. Jones,” the restrained “Perfect Blue Buildings”), August and Everything After bogs down into sluggish tempos and indistinguishable melodies. The languid pace forces the focus onto the lyrics, which are frequently too full of themselves to be taken seriously. “I took the cannonball down to the ocean/Across the desert from sea to shining sea/I rode a ladder that climbs across the nation/Fifty million feet of earth between the buried and me.” Yeah, whatever. The quintet’s ensemble playing is impressive, but over the course of eleven songs, Duritz is unable to maintain the melodic invention on which to safely hang his beautiful loser clichés.
Sordid Humor, a Bay Area band led between 1987 and 1992 by singer/guitarist Tom Barnes (now at the helm of Engine 88), is connected genealogically to Counting Crows via bassist David Immerglück (also of the Monks of Doom), a Duritz pal who played guitar, mandolin and pedal steel on August and Everything After. Light Music for Dying People was assembled and released posthumously in the wake of the Crows’ success (especially as the group made a habit of including Sordid Humor’s “Jumping Jesus,” from a 1989 EP, in its set). With seven tracks co-produced by Crows rhythm guitarist Dave Bryson, the album — which amazingly doesn’t contain “Jumping Jesus” — is pleasant but undistinguished electric folk-rock; Duritz sings backup and co-wrote the song “Barbarossa.”