Counting Crows' Recovering the Satellites Was One of the Best Rock Records of the '90s
Counting Crows in 1996: the kind of band critics loved (and still love) to hate
Dennis Keeley/Geffen Records
History hasn’t been kind to Counting Crows.
In most circles, the group are remembered exclusively for their blunders: the “Big Yellow Taxi” cover featuring Vanessa Carlton; the nightmare-inducing music video for “Accidentally in Love,” which depicts frontman Adam Duritz as a computer-generated rabbit, replete with signature goatee and radish-top dreadlocks; and the overly emotive “Mr. Jones,” a song that has been overplayed and over-karaoke’d to death. Along with The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” and Gin Blossoms’ “Follow You Down,” “Mr. Jones” epitomizes a specific brand of adult-oriented pop-rock that feels confined to the mid-’90s. It’s a style of music too earnest for chic renewal.
Referring to any band that has sold millions of records as “misunderstood” or “underrated” is ridiculous. But Counting Crows were always artistically undervalued by the press, despite (or because of?) the immense commercial success that greeted them out of the gate.
A passage from a Rolling Stone review for the group’s 1993 debut, August and Everything After, though ultimately positive, reads like a cookbook recipe, reducing the band’s music to the mere sum of its influences: “the Americana-drenched imagery and multi-instrumental explorations of The Band (‘Omaha’); the entrancing soulfulness of Van Morrison (‘Mr. Jones’); the lonesome Joshua Tree–era U2 (‘Ghost Train’); the rootsy rock of John Mellencamp (‘Rain King’).” The author concedes that it’s “difficult to pigeonhole the Counting Crows sound,” much to his obvious dismay. A harsher review published in Entertainment Weekly suggests that the group’s folky, conceived-at-Woodstock aesthetic was a label-generated farce. “Say what you will about a young-old-fart group like the Spin Doctors,” the review reads, “they at least look as if they’d risen out of years in beer-encrusted bars and dives. Counting Crows seem as if they’d risen out of a marketing meeting at Geffen Records.”
Counting Crows had been accused of posing as authentic, which is the worst sort of posing there is.
Three years after their debut, the group would release Recovering the Satellites. While August was pop through and through — even the songs that weren’t released as singles emit a radio-ready sheen — Recovering the Satellites sought to challenge the general listening public with a darker, heavier sound and introspective lyrics. After two years of nonstop touring, lead singer Adam Duritz felt as if fame had isolated him from every meaningful aspect of life. The singer’s post–“Mr. Jones” malaise is tackled directly in the song “Have You Seen Me Lately?”: “These days I feel like I’m fading away/Like sometimes, when I hear myself on the radio.” “Being too famous” may be an esoteric problem, but the album's themes of isolation and alienation still resonate for anyone who's gone through a major life change.
Unlike August, which maintains its folk-flecked pop vibe throughout, Satellites incorporates a range of disparate styles and moods. It’s simultaneously Counting Crows’ most rockin' and most somber record, a dichotomy made clear by the first two tracks. Lilting opener “Catapult” evokes The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" with its Mellotron intro, but thematically it's more akin to “Help”: “What a big baby, won’t somebody save me please?” Second track “Angels of the Silences,” the group’s lone foray into something resembling emo, explores the exasperating nature of religious faith: “Where’d you come from? Where am I going?/Why’d you leave me ’til I’m only good for/Waiting for you/All my sins/I said that I would pay for them if I could come back to you."
Many of the lyrics on Satellites concern waiting. The narrator in “Angels of the Silences” is waiting for a faith-affirming sign from God. In “Goodnight Elisabeth,” Duritz is waiting for a train, then waiting for his lover down in Baton Rouge. In “A Long December,” the record’s biggest hit and obvious centerpiece (and the lone song from the album most casual fans and critics remember), Duritz is simply waiting for the year to end. But then he contradicts his entire thesis: “I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself/To hold on to these moments as they pass.” The moral: Waiting can make time feel as if it’s decelerating, until you realize how much you’ve missed.
Music fans have selective amnesia. The Rolling Stones are considered by many to be one of the greatest rock & roll bands of all time, despite the fact that half of their output is merely decent. We remember Johnny Cash as that middle finger–wagging paragon of artistic integrity, even though he wrote jingles for Taco Bell.
To their detractors, Counting Crows lacked the necessary authenticity to offset their missteps. There are no punk “early years”; this is a group that burst onto the scene as a major label–backed pop machine, seemingly engineered to cash in on the mid-’90s "alternative rock" craze. And when you’re a mainstream artist, even when you make something uncharacteristically provocative, people still assume you’re faking it.
Recovering the Satellites was by no means a poor seller, but its numbers paled in comparison with those of August and Everything After. On their third album, 1999’s This Desert Life, Counting Crows reverted to the nonthreatening, folk-pop formula introduced by August; the two album covers even share a near-identical color palette. They have yet to make another record as dark and diverse as Satellites.
Despite 2016 being the 20-year anniversary of Satellites’ release, Counting Crows currently only play a few songs off the record live (according to archived set lists on Setlist.fm). They're not giving it the album-live-in-its-entirety treatment, or even brushing off a few under-played deep cuts. Maybe they themselves don't think it's worthy of revisiting — or, more likely, they just know those aren’t the songs most fans pay to hear them play.
But perhaps one day, Recovering the Satellites will be properly remembered for what it is: one of the best and most emotive rock records of the ’90s. But that’s a job for the historians — not the critics.
Counting Crows play the Greek Theatre with Rob Thomas on Thursday, Sept. 8. Tickets and more info.
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