Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Request Line: “Round Here”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 2, 2010

Reader DO IT writes:

COUNTING CROWS – ROUND HERE

Hey man, round here, we don’t take orders. Lucky for you, I was kind of looking for an excuse to write about Counting Crows anyway.

Of all the major rock stars of my youth, I’d probably have felt the safest in assuming that Adam Duritz would never merit any significant re-evaluation. If anything, I thought it was ridiculous that we ever gave this guy as much credence as we sort of did–I would look at the AMG’s description of the Crows as an “angst-filled hybrid of Van Morrison, The Band and R.E.M.” and laugh as I pictured the horrified look on the respective artists’ faces at being on one side of that comparison. Duritz was a classic example of an artist taking himself so unbelievably seriously that he ended up convincing others that he was worthy of the treatment as well–despite being a white man with horrific dreadlocks and a penchant for uninspiring figurative language, who ended up dating 1/3 of the primary cast of Friends. As a kid I thought he was brilliant, as a burgeoning music critic, I thought he was an an idiot, and after that…well, I didn’t really think about him very much at all.

I don’t know what it is that started to change my perception of Duritz, but it might really be that I just started to kinda feel bad for him. In the 90s it seemed crazy to think there would be a time where Counting Crows would no longer be the chosen sons of VH1 and adult-contemporary radio, but as we progressed into the 21st century, the Crows  retreated from the spotlight some, only releasing two albums (and a fun but negligible single from the Shrek 2 soundtrack) the entire decade. Just as I was starting to wonder why they’d been gone for so long, I read this absolutely incredible Rolling Stone profile on Duritz, in which it’s revealed that Duritz suffered from depression and horrible acid flashbacks, had recently experienced a mental breakdown after his girlfriend and grandmother died on the same day and not left his bed for months, and was currently living with a Berkley grad about 20 years his junior in some sort of weird mentoring capacity. Most surprising, perhaps, was that Duritz was acutely aware of how public perception of him had plummeted, and was not at all happy about it. Suddenly, making fun of the AMG’s preposterously gushing Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings review didn’t seem so funny. (OK, it was still fucking hilarious. But you know.)

Anyway, it may or may not have been because of this, but I started to listen to those early Counting Crows songs a little differently. His extraordinary success had always led me to blindly assume that Duritz was really some charming asshole that just put on sensitive airs to get co-ed ass (as brilliantly satirized in that scene in The Rules of Attraction where James Van Der Beek callously goes through the motions of playing a girl “Anna Begins” on the guitar before having sex with her), but listening to the songs again, it’s clear that the dude had some serious hang ups and insecurities from the get, and was actually pretty damn good at turning those into good-to-great pop/rock songs. He could occasionally be a little thick with the coffee-house poetry on the lyrics, sure, and the over-emoting got egregious more than once, but each of his songs seemed to at least have a couple moments of genuine emotional breakthrough, and the best of them were as catchy and compelling as any hits on either side of the alt-rock dividing line in the early-mid 90s.

When talking about “Round Here,” though, you absolutely have to start with that guitar riff. Couldn’t be much simpler–just three notes, repated endlessly–but it resonates on such a guttural level that it never even becomes remotely tiring throughout the song’s five-and-a-half-minute duration. In fact, by far my least favorite part of the song is the bridge, where it goes into some clumsy jam groove for about twenty seconds, but that’s mostly just because I’m craving to hear more of that three-note riff (and when it dose kick back in–glorious). The subtle little organ bed underneath enhances its effect, as does T-Bone Burnett’s production, which lets it echo out for miles and miles, but sometimes in rock, it’s just as basic as three really, really well-placed notes. And they certainly picked the right one here. (Ten points, by the way, if you can name the guitarist–or any non-Duritz member, for that matter–for Counting Crows. Poor other guys.)

The riff helps, but Duritz owns the song from the first line as well.  “Step off the front door like a ghost into the fog / Where no one notices the contrast of white on white.” Say what you will about Duritz as a wordsmith, and lord knows he’s made his share of questionable decisions, but that’s a great opening line–vivid and lyrical and intrugiung. I always loved opening lines to just about anything–movies, books, songs–which didn’t waste time with exposition, starting in the middle of the action and working their way backwards*. From there it’s mostly lyrics about his emotionally unstable girlfriend, which do a pretty solid job of illustrating the constant fear and strange intimacy and allure of being involved with a crazy person (“She parks her car outside my house / Takes her clothes off / Says she’s close to understanding Jesus”). The entire song takes on that feeling of fragility, of teetering on the brink of mental and physical collapse, and as cheap an image as Duritz hanging out in a Dali-esque clock desert might be, the video does do a nice job of providing a visual for the whole beautiful-misery-of-isolation vibe of the lyrics.

But however good the lyrics may or may not be, it’s always going to be Duritz’s delivery that sells them. This was one thing I never denied about the dreaded wonder: Dude was a great vocalist. He can do the desperate-on-the-edge-of-total-cracking thing with his voice better than just about anyone outside of Tweedy or Westerberg, and he really knows how to use it to emotionally escalate a song. Take the last line in the second verse, where Duritz, still singing about his untogether chick, explains “She knows she’s more than just a little misunderstood / She has trouble acting normal when she’s nnnNNNERVOUSS!!!” As you no doubt gleaned from my resorting to bold, caps, italics and an extended N, Duritz cranks it up for the last word in that line, a piercing octave-up that comes relatively out of nowhere and makes damn sure that you give the line the emotional credit that it deserves. It raises the stakes for the song , which he continues to do throughout, capping it with the final chorus’s “ROOUND HEEERE / SHE’S ALLLWAYYYYS ONNN MYYYY MIIIIIIND!!!!” and the climactic final question, “Would you CATCH me if I’m falling?? / Would you CATCH me if I’m falling? / Would you catch me if I’m FALLLLLLLLLING DOWWWN???” I’ve never been able to avoid the chills on that one–if you’re going to write a song largely about manic depression, you fucking better be able to hit the razor-sharp emotional peaks like that.

Remove the near-decade of cultural saturation, the stench of over-zealousness, and yes, those damn dreadlocks, and you’re left with one of the more powerful hit rock songs of the 90s. If you need another five years or so to acclimate to the idea of re-acceptance, I suppose I can’t blame you, but do try to stop by again at some point. Round here, something really does radiate.

*(Yes, I know there’s an actual literary term for it, but if I used it in this article I’d probably have to put it in italics and that’d make me seem like more of a douche than I probably already do for delving deep into Counting Crows lyrics.)
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