Counting Crows - Underwater Sunshine Track By Track

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Adam Duritz is a bona fide music geek. Last week, we spent an hour on the phone with the Counting Crows frontman, talking about his passion for each of the 15 songs he chose for the band’s upcoming covers record, Underwater Sunshine, which—starting today—you can stream exclusively here at Paste. We got the sense he’ll never tire of talking about record-hunting in England, discovering new bands on Daytrotter or proclaiming his love for Big Star. But as much as he loves the original versions of these songs, he felt no need for fidelity to those recordings. “I don’t see any reason to stay true the original at all,” Duritz said. “Part of the reason you want to record a song is because you have an idea of how you want to do it.”

Counting Crows  first began releasing covers as B-sides to Hard Candy singles, but this will be the first full covers record. “We’ve been wanting to do it for a while,” Duritz said. “We kind of like interpreting songs and coming up with our own versions of things. It’s pretty close to the same thing we do when we make acoustic versions of our songs. We just have a lot of fun doing it. It’s the kind of thing we’ve always done but never put down in a record. We were always told it wasn’t a good idea but we’d always wanted to do it. I was working on a play last year so there was writing I wanted to put towards that, but I still really wanted to record with the band, so this seemed like the perfect time to do this.”

Duritz walked us through the record track-by-track, offering his insight on why each song was chosen and what each means to him:

Untitled Love Song
Written by: Luke MacMaster
Originally Recorded by: The Romany Rye
Duritz says: I knew [The Romany Rye], and when I was down in SXSW last year we went to see them play a couple of times, and I thought it was great. I’d heard the stuff before on their Daytrotter sessions but I didn’t have the record yet, I don’t think. I had the Daytrotter sessions, the first one they did, but I didn’t have the record yet. We’d just seen them play a couple of times. I remember they ended the set with “Untitled Love Songs” and it just grooved forever. It looked like fun. They were just kinda chuggin along to that song and I just thought it looked like a really great groove to play. They came around when we were recording it.

Start Again
Written by: Norman Blake
Originally Recorded by: Teenage Fanclub
Duritz says: Well I’ve loved Teenage Fan Clubs forever. I love that band, probably because we like a lot of the same music. We were labelmates for a little while and then they kind of steered for a bit and came back with Songs From Northern Britain, which is one of my favorite records ever. I think it’s just a fantastic album about relationships and people struggling to communicate with each other. I love the record so much. I really wanted to do something off of it. We had this strum-along version of “Start Again,” we were messing around with it for years and it wasn’t until this session that is actually got really good. We started to layer things on there and found that cool, 12-string line. We finally figured out an approach to layering things on one at a time—adding the piano in the second verse, adding vocals then adding the 12-string. I don’t know, I just love that song. That album just kills me. I had two or three songs picked from Teenage Fan Club and then I got to Songs From Northern Britain and pretty much wrote down every song. The first idea we had about “Start Again” was really because I thought it was a cool song and we could just strum on it and sing harmony and it would be cool—almost like an early Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song—and then we sort of really developed it.

Written by: Coby Brown
Originally Recorded by: Coby Brown
Duritz says: Immer [Guitarist David Immerglück] brought in because he had just finished demoing it with Coby, and when we heard it, that’s all we had really. The demo had an acoustic guitar and bass on it. I didn’t realize he even knew Coby Brown. I know Cody. I had to call Coby up and ask what he was singing. I’m not sure that our version will be like theirs. They actually recorded his version after our record. I’m curious to hear if the lyrics are the same because I think he wasn’t finished with them yet when we were starting to record it. I asked him what he was mumbling on the demo. So I wasn’t sure if I was making up stuff. I know I changed words around because I think that’s what he wanted, but I’m not sure. It’s just a great song. That one was one where I had an immediate idea for how to arrange it. I had an idea about a stripped-down thing with the acoustic guitar and then based on the electric guitar slamming in on these start/stops in particular moments. I found places to accent with the full band, big loud accents with the distorted guitar, so that one I had a real idea about right away. I didn’t bring it in though, that was Immer who brought that one in and for some reason it just rang true to me. I love that song so much, especially because of what I was going through at the time it was sort of the perfect song to be playing.

The doctors decided to take me off a bunch of meds they had me on—nothing I was abusing, they were prescription medications that had been prescribed to me for mental illness—but they were very addictive, I guess, and very powerful, and coming off of them was a nightmare. It took about seven months to get off all seven different medications, which I weaned myself off. At that point—I guess it was in June when we were recording “Hospital”—I could not stop shaking. Literally, in the studio the day we were doing that song I was twitching and shaking and I could not stop it. You can hear me in the song vibrating and the lyrics in the song are you know, “there’s some pills that I shouldn’t take.” It’s about living in the hospital and how fucked up it is, and here I am literally vibrating around the room while I’m trying to sing it. It was very poignant for me at the time.

Written by: Kurt Stevenson & Patrick Winningham
Originally Recorded by: Tender Mercies
Duritz says: Tender Mercies is a band that Charlie [Gillingham] and Dan [Vickrey] were in before they were in Counting Crows. When I met them they were playing with all these guys, Patrick Winningham and Kurt Stevenson. They were in a band called The Tender Mercies. We were all in different bands in the area and played a lot of gigs together and knew each other, and that’s where Dan and Charlie were. Charlie joined our band and Dan joined a little later, but I used to go see that band all the time. They played all those songs back then, in ’90, ’91, ’92. So those songs had been around a while. “Mercy” we didn’t pick up until a few years ago. It’s my favorite one actually, I really love playing that song. This last year Dan and Jim got together with Patrick and recorded all the Tender Mercy songs. Charlie didn’t play on the record because he was working on this program he’s been designing. I’m really glad they made the record. It’s so funny, it’s been 20 years, and they decide to make the record right before we release this record with the songs on it. [Laughs] It’s a great record.

Meet On The Ledge
Written by:   Richard Thompson  
Originally Recorded by: Fairport Convention
Duritz says: “Meet Me on the Ledge” is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. I read about Richard Thompson in ’82 maybe, and I was fascinated about everything I’d read about him but none of those records were available in America. So that stuff all went on my list that I had of records that I needed to find. My parents took my grandmother on a trip to England when I was a kid, and I went along. On that trip, I had a list of about 30 to 40 albums that were legendary records that I wanted to find that weren’t available in America. The first Modern Lovers album all the Billy Brag stuff, Big Star. So when I went to England, I got all the Richard and Linda Thompson records. When I got home I just listened to them for the next 20 years. In particular, “Meet Me on The Ledge” is one of the few songs that features all the different lead singers not just singing harmony but verses. It starts off with Ian Matthews in the first verse and then Sandy Denny takes the second. It’s really cool because you have Richard Thompson just tearing up the guitar, and you have all these great vocalist singing separately, and not many songs have either one or the other. I just love the song so much.

Like Teenage Gravity
Written by: Kasey Anderson
Originally Recorded by: Kasey Anderson
Duritz says: Kasey Anderson really is funny. I met him when he played our showcase, it might have been in Austin last year… we became friends and hung out a lot and God, he’s so fucking funny. He’s so good on twitter. But yea, his records are great, they’re really good records. I was determined to do one of Kasey’s songs for the record because I think he’s a great writer and I wanted people to hear his songs. I was surprised I picked that song. I thought I’d pick one of the other ones, but this one snuck on me. When I sat down, I keep coming back to “Like Teenage Gravity” even though it was a nightmare to record. It was just very sparse, just an acoustic guitar and piano is I think all that’s on it and it’s really good that way. But here we have this seven-piece band and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. When we started recording it, it sounded terrible. Then I had an idea for an arrangement… but that one and “Hospital” were recorded in the same day. And here I am having this terrible day flipping out but I had incredible focus and ended up with two of my favorite arrangements. I’m usually not that complete with arrangements but those two songs I had really precise ideas all the way through them. I had this clarity in those two songs while I was bouncing off the walls.

Written by: Craig Fuller
Originally Recorded by: Pure Prairie League
Duritz says: I think [Pure Prairie League is] kind of underrated, too. [Bustin’ Out] is a really good record. Each song ends with the next song. I think it’s a pretty good record actually. That song is just really fun to sing. It’s fun to do the harmonies as they interlap. I can’t think of any other reason than that. We all love country music—well, a lot of us do anyways. It’s something that appeals to us. This particular song, I just like singing it. It’s goofy. The song itself, I thought, “I don’t really want to fuck with it much.” It’s just a pleasure.

Coming Around
Written by: Fran Healy
Originally Recorded by: Travis
Duritz says: When I figured out that was the sequence [Pure Prairie League into Travis], I was really happy about that. That song is great. One of my favorite things is the European festival [circuit]—the camaraderie of it, and how band-centric it is. It’s cool because over the course of a summer you play with the same guys. With Travis, seeing them live they were much more rock then the record. Live, it’s a really big rock-stomp thing. I was blow away. I’m guessing our version doesn’t sound much like the recorded version; I bet it sounds like a live version from back then. We learned it in the studio. Back in April when we started recording, we just started with all the [other] songs we knew how to play. And it just sounded like shit. It was terrible. We accomplished absolutely nothing, and we blew Dan’s voice out. I didn’t know what to do then. It was a really bad day. I felt like we needed to get the stink of that day off of us, and I didn’t really know how to do it. So in the middle of the night I had an idea and sent mp3s of two songs to our bass player. I said, “Just listen to this song, write down the chords and give them to the band. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” So they went in without playing it for anyone, and when I came in we just started playing it. When I went and played the record later, it didn’t sound like them at all. It would be like cleansing our pallet. It really worked. We spent those two days doing those two songs. “Coming Around” came out great, and it didn’t sound like Travis because I didn’t let anyone hear it beforehand

Ooh La La
Written by: Ronnie Lane & Ron Wood
Originally Recorded by: The Faces
Duritz says: “Ooh La La” almost didn’t make the record. There was a feeling that it was just kind of sitting there. It sort of seemed like the whole thing was drowning. It turned that something was missing. One of the guitars accidentally got left off, and it was supposed to be building and going around singing all these harmonies, but someone left out one of the background vocals and the guitar. So the song went downhill instead of uphill, you know what I mean. We just kept thinking that the song sucked and our performance sucked because it just wasn’t happening, but then when we figured out the problem it was fine. That’s what happens when you have seven people playing and everyone is strumming, you don’t notice when something is missing. That’s why it sounded so empty. It’s a fucking silly song. We all got to dig in on it, and it’s just a fun song to sing. It’s a real vocalist song, so you can totally dig in.

All My Failures
Written by: Taylor Goldsmith
Originally Recorded by: Dawes
Duritz says: I had heard about Dawes, and they were running around SXSW last year. I didn’t get to see them at all, but there are a lot of really great Daytrotter sessions for them. When I discovered Daytrotter a few years ago, it’s something I really went to town on because there are so many different recordings in there. I was really digging on it. I became friends with [Dawes frontman] Taylor [Goldsmith] over Twitter and over the phone. It’s been great because with all my friends, it’s like a network for musicians who meet each other and continue to talk. If somebody likes your record they tweet it, then you write back to them, and the next thing you know, you kind of know each other. I found there were people I had known for years before I had been in the same place with them. With Taylor, we have so many mutual friends, and when we finally hung out together when they were in New York, all of our friends were like, “Adam and Taylor met, in real life.” It’s a bizarre thing because I’ve found I have a lot of friends that I’ve written with and talked on the phone a lot with but haven’t really spent anytime with. There’s a commonality especially between bloggers and musicians. I found “All My Failures” on one of the Daytrotter sessions. They have a lot of good songs, but that one just seemed to have that kind of country-gospel thing, so it was just fitting for the record. Though I think any number of their songs would have been great.

Four White Stallions
Written by: Dan Vickrey, Kurt Stevenson & Patrick Winningham
Originally Recorded by: Tender Mercies
Duritz says: I think Dan [Vickrey] wrote most of that song and that always resonated with me. That one was really Dan, and I always liked singing it because of that. We’ve been playing that for a while. Right when Dan was comfortable playing and stuff, I asked him to teach it to us. I think it’s just a great song. It’s a classic, country-gospel tune that just really speaks to me.

Return of the Grievous Angel
Written by:   Gram Parsons  
Originally Recorded by:   Gram Parsons  
Duritz says: We’ve been playing “Return of the Grievous Angel” for a long time now. We learned it some very hungover afternoon in Cape Town [South Africa]. It’s a great road song. I thought about some of their other songs because we’d been playing this one for years. I’d always wanted to record “A Song For You” and “$1,000 Wedding,” but in the end I really wanted a great version for “Grievous Angel,” and this version I really think kicks ass. It’s a great rock version of that song. A few years ago we were playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and we were determined to play a version at a bluegrass festival. When we got there that day, we realized the person playing before us was Emmylou Harris, and I had never meet her before, but she’s the singer on the original. So everyone was coming up saying, “You’ve got to get Emmylou to sing that song with you,” but I didn’t really want to do that. I worship Emmylou Harris; I don’t think I could talk to Emmylou Harris, let alone sing with Emmylou Harris. I was terrified of the whole thing. But then, you know, everyone’s saying, “Come back right before you go on and learn it together, it’ll be great.” Then she played and it literally brought tears to my eyes. Her voice is so silver and good still, and it’s amazing to see her play… it was really something. It knocked me out. Anyway, her dressing room was right behind the stage so after she played, we sat down but as soon as we started playing back stage—our version is completely different rhythm, vocals; I’ve changed the drive on the melody. And I didn’t notice it until I’m trying to sing the song, and every single line is sung with the harmony of someone else. It was not cool. I suddenly realized our version is nothing like the Gram Parsons version. It just doesn’t sound a damn thing like his version. Finally when, we got on stage, it was the weirdest thing and I’ll say it wasn’t fun but I’m glad we did it with her. When we were on stage I had to adjust the rhythm, and the melody of the vocal to match her harmony. I’m struggling to remember how her harmony goes and change my vocal to match her harmony, which I thought I’d been singing right for years—but realize I totally fucked it up and came up with my own version of the song. But it was the weirdest thing because the band is playing our pretty-much-rocking version of the song, and Emmylou and I are singing a completely different, singsong rhythm of the original version, and I’m changing the melodies and making all the other people dive around and try to figure out the song. It was so fucking funny to me. In my head, it was terrifying. I don’t usually think about collaborating. I love other musicians, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I can play with them. So the fact that it happened, and the fact that I realized right before we went up on stage that it was going to be a problem—I sweated through that whole set. I think it came out okay. I won’t say that it was great. She was great. I was just trying to figure out what to do.

Jumping Jesus
Written by: Tom Barnes & Jim Gordon
Originally Recorded by: Sordid Humor
Duritz says: We were all in Sordid Humor at one point—all of us. Everyone wanted to play in that band. They were amazing. They were an incredible band. Their first EP later on—I ended up singing some background vocals on it. The bass player at that time Marty Jones—Mr. Jones—his cousin was the drummer at that time, he became the very first drummer for Counting Crows, so we all knew each other. I ended up joining that band just to sing background vocals for a couple of years. I almost quit all my other bands. I was in Himalayans and Counting Crows and Sordid Humor and even though I was just background I almost quit the others because I thought Sordid Humor was just the best band. Tom is one of my favorite songwriters. Tom Barnes, in my opinion, was as good as it got. He was a great writer. His band after was just as good. But all the songs stayed unreleased until Counting Crows blew up. I did, and still sort of do, tend to stick Humor lyrics in the middle of Counting Crows songs, and people knew about that. Anyway it was one of my favorite bands.

You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Written by:   Bob Dylan  
Originally Recorded by: Bob Dylan; The Byrds 
Duritz says: It’s not really a daunting Dylan song to sing, you know. For one thing, I always thought it was a Byrds song to begin with. [Laughs.] I think it’s from The Basement Tapes. It’s one they recorded in mid ’66 when the band is all held up in Woodstock. So it’s sort of an underground Dylan thing, and I’ve heard other people do it, and Dylan and The Band do it, but I don’t know, it didn’t feel like one we’d have to particularly worry about. I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about at all, if anything. I’m pretty sure it’s total fucking nonsense. But it’s the best fucking nonsense I’ve ever heard. We used to do this thing, we were playing all these gigs. They were called The Rolling Blunder Review where Cracker would play a gig and they would have Steve Wynn and me and Dan and Joan [Osborne] would play these epic gigs together. And I would sing different Cracker songs that I liked, and we would do “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Man, those were great shows. We’d get loaded and sing all these songs together. Up in Pioneertown [Calif.], we put this little band together, and we’d play at this bar a bunch of songs, and I think that was the first time I played. So I always liked it. To me, it was a song that I got together and played with my friends.

The Ballad of El Goodo
Written by: Alex Chilton & Chris Bell
Originally Recorded by: Big Star
Duritz says: One of the last changes we made was putting “The Ballad of El Goodo” at the end of the record. I find it hard to follow that song on a record. I really love that song. Big Star were really important to me. And Alex was too. That was one of the bands that I had on that list of records when I went to Europe the first time. I wanted to know who Big Star was because I had read about them, but I had never heard them. So Alex Chilton and Big Star were what I wanted in Europe in ’82, ’81 when I went over there, and that totally changed my life. Those records, the first R.E.M. record, Chronic Town and finding all the Big Star stuff all at the same time—it just really knocked me out. The first time I ever went to Memphis when I was on tour with the band we went to Ardent Studios, and Joey Stevens was there and I recognized him right away. And when Big Star started playing those reunion tours in Columbia, the University of Missouri and one other and then in San Francisco when they asked us to open up for them, I didn’t want Counting Crows friends to buy out all the tickets; we were really blowing up at that time. They were still sold out still, that was spring of ’94, it was pretty early, I think it was the second show they’d played when they came back, and it was just a dream come true seeing them. It really flipped me out. And then we asked Alex to come on tour with us, he was on the first summer tour Counting Crows ever did. It was a fucking nightmare. [Laughs.] Audiences, he’d just taunt the audiences, the audience would just taunt him back, and he just had it out with the audience every night and every night I went on stage just hating everyone we were playing for because they were fucking with my absolute idol. He’s such a good guy. He was so great to me and so nice, and I was so fucking shy around him. I literally had trouble forming two sentences, and I knew him for years because he lived in New Orleans, and New Orleans was my home away from home for so many years in the mid ’90s, until most of New Orleans moved to my house in L.A. So I kind of saw Alex every night at a bar or one thing or the other. Every night he was out playing. He was always so fucking cool to me. I could just not talk around him. And it was such a bummer because hew as my biggest idol in the whole world. Like, nothing mattered like he did to me and I could not talk around him. It was so hard and he was always so cool. It always felt like there was going to be another day and I’d do a better job of it. And then I didn’t see him for a few days because I wasn’t in New Orleans and then he passed away right before SXSW a couple of years ago. They invited me for that Big Star thing but I turned it down because I didn’t feel like I could go there and sing Big Star songs with Alex there. I just always thought I was going to be better at it eventually. But that songs, it’s speaking about survival.

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