There are many fine lines that all artists and would-be contenders must walk. There's clever and stupid. There's sincere and sentimental. There's influential and influenced. The list is long, and achieving an authentic balance is always more instinctual than learned. Artistry is the illusion that something mundane can walk for itself, that somehow little moments add up to a crucial whole. What's the line? Amateurs borrow, professionals steal.
Bob Dylan, for example, is the ultimate thief. A Jewish kid from northern Minnesota who became an Okie in disguise, a French Symbolist poet with a serious case of the blues and a born-again stranger who no one really knows. Counting Crows' singer Adam Duritz wanted to be Bob Dylan, as he told us on his band's first hit single, Mr. Jones. He even borrowed a little Van Morrison by way of the song's sha-la-la Brown Eyed Girl chorus to make it obvious. Like most of us, he grew up believing that the key to the universe was held in becoming someone else. He got himself some dreads, and he led a band that synthesized that old-time rock and roll with solid professionalism. Listening to his band's maiden album, August and Everything After, you could hear the no-nonsense unfurling of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers with the Americana resonance of the Band. Duritz wrote lyrics that ached with a romanticism for late nights and unrequited love taken down sordid avenues -- part Charles Bukowski on fire with Bruce Springsteen.
Step out the front door like a ghost/into the fog where no one notices/the contrast of white on white/and in between the moon and you/the angels get a better view/of the crumbling difference between wrong and right, he sang at the beginning of Round Here. While certain aspects of the band seemed forced (Omaha, the debut album's second cut tried too hard to be one of the folks), there was an ease in Duritz's delivery, a natural gift for phrasing things just so. He could slide into a note, hold it or cut it off with equal precision. Not tremendous range, but, better, a limited voice eager to try anything and versed enough to know how to do it successfully. That first album in some ways sounded like the best Van Morrison album you'd heard in years, the kind you wished Van would make instead of the flaccid new-age hymns and overarranged blues that littered his records at that point for nearly a decade.
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Upon the band's sudden success, Duritz took to substituting Alex Chilton for Bob Dylan when performing Mr. Jones in concert. With fame beckoning Dylan seemed like asking for too much and -- even worse -- wish fulfillment. With the song blaring out of radios everywhere, it sounded like an arrogant boast instead of the long-shot dream it was intended to be. Using the name of the former Box Tops singer (known primarily for The Letter, among other hits) and leader of the early Seventies power-pop group Big Star seemed more appropriate, as if the opiates of fame and fortune might be a little better just slightly out of reach.
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Duritz dated not one but two stars of Friends: Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox. But he also headed back to a bar in San Francisco where he could sling drinks and pretend to be one of the regular guys. But what is normal? Perhaps being one of the other guys in the band. The members of the five-piece group that seamlessly weaved a mix of guitar, bass, drums, organ, and accordion were like movie extras in terms of star quality. Their musicianship was faultless, but no one member defined the sound as anything remarkable. They churned anonymously behind Duritz, reinterpreting the songs as evidenced by the double-live set Across a Wire: Live in New York City.
For the band's second studio album, Recovering the Satellites, the sound turned slightly harsher, as if Duritz and company didn't want to be seen as mere traditionalists. They did, after all, first come to attention as something of an alternative band. So the guitars were mixed louder and the first single, Angels of the Silences, crashed and burned with slightly more firepower. It was A Long December, however, the melancholy ballad near the end of the album, that appeared ad infinitum in shopping malls, restaurants, and offices the country over. It sounded like a lost Tom Petty track, maybe something undeservedly left over from Southern Accents.
This Desert Life, the group's third studio effort, was a muted affair. Hanginaround had a stylish video, and VH1 saw fit to play it. But the band has never expanded the way you might expect. Obvious heroes Bob Dylan and Van Morrison followed their muses into the mystic and achieved mixed results, with the highs resoundingly high and the lows always worth re-evaluating from time to time. But Counting Crows sounded like they were at a standstill: successful enough to be allowed major airplay but only if the songs were short and concise and didn't seem too outwardly weird.
Using a symbol they should enjoy, Counting Crows is at a crossroads. They must decide whether they're driving down the middle of the road or heading for the ditch. And they'd better put on their best cat-burglar threads if they intend to get away with it in the end.