By the end of 1993, grunge had been commodified and defanged by the record companies. Rage Against the Machine had already assailed the complacent with its self-titled opening salvo and Dr. Dre passed The Chronic, taking rap music one step closer to the mainstream. But in the midst of all this anger, popular music also turned inward. In late 1992, R.E.M. released Automatic for the People, shifting the musical consciousness, briefly moving popular songwriting from loud outbursts of emotion to quieter, more introspective songscapes backed by lush strings, the tickle of the mandolin and muted minor key misery. One of those records that benefited from that trend is August and Everything After, the debut by Counting Crows, an album that came out the same day as Nirvana’s swan song In Utero.
Led by the jubilantly ecstatic “Mr. Jones,” August and Everything After catapulted Counting Crows into the national consciousness, despite its lead single being anything but indicative of the meditative and introspective nature of many of its songs. Opening track and second single “Round Here” is the album’s mission statement. After 10 seconds of absolute silence, arpeggiated guitar picking kicks in, a quiet beginning to a song that swells through numerous emotional crescendos during its five and a half minutes. “Step out on the front porch like a ghost/ Into the fog where no one notices/ The contrast of white on white,” singer Adam Duritz intones, a monochromatic beginning to an album that features black-winged birds, perfect blue buildings and narrators painting themselves blue and red and black and gray.
There is something poignantly nostalgic and wistful about songs such as “Round Here” and not just for someone who was living at its peak in 1993. They sound like they come from the foggy tide of memory, pieces of a rain-soaked web that runs throughout most of the record. It makes sense that “Mr. Jones” was the lead single, it’s the buoyant sibling bursting away from more somber sisters such as “Perfect Blue Buildings” and “Raining in Baltimore.” Helped along with the glossy production of T-Bone Burnett, the songs on August and Everything After have that slick sheen indicative of the era. Just re-listen to a Smashing Pumpkins album or anything produced by Brendan O’Brien for a similar sonic shellacking.
But back to that R.E.M. influence. Counting Crows go beyond the simple incorporation of mandolin on August and Everything After. Charlie Gillingham’s Hammond B-3 organ that opens “Omaha” and the chord progression on “Rain King” recall not only some of the songs on Automatic for the People but reaching back to Lifes Rich Pageant. It’s not like R.E.M. held the patent on jangly guitars, but there is a definite similarity. Unfortunately, the songwriting behind most of August and Everything After doesn’t have that timeless Berry-Buck-Mills-Stipe quality.
At his best, Duritz is powerfully emotive singer who earned immediate comparisons to Van Morrison. In fact, he does his best work on the album’s quieter tracks such as “Ghost Train” and “Raining in Baltimore.” But in other places, his vocals threaten to overpower the songs. For all the radio love “Mr. Jones” received in 1993, it seemed nearly as many couldn’t stand Duritz’s singing. And that unhinged yowl at the end of “Rain King” more or less destroys the song.
Twenty years later, August and Everything After still retains some of its power, but some of its faults flicker even brighter. Many of Duritz’s lyrics are laughably bad. “I felt so symbolic yesterday,” from “Mr. Jones” ranks up there as one of the single worst lyrics of all time as well as “And every time she sneezes/ I believe it’s love.”
However, it’s not time or the record itself that has taken the shine off August and Everything After, but simple history. In the mid-‘90s, Counting Crows were notorious for sub-par live shows (I witnessed one myself at State College) and subsequent releases such as Recovering the Satellites replaced the wistful nostalgia that drove August and Everything After with a harder, less successful edge. It wouldn’t take long to see that off-yellow cover with the scrawled writing filling the used bins in record shops.
In 2013, Counting Crows still pack large venues, but hipper audiences will likely lump the band in the same company as Train and the Dave Matthews Band. August and Everything After sold 7 million copies, a feat the band hasn’t come close to replicating since. But for those who find Counting Crows overwrought cast-offs of the ‘90s should give August and Everything After another chance. Even if you weren’t cognizant in 1993, the album still breathes with the feeling of that epoch, a time before iPods and YouTube, a time where wearing baggy flannel felt revolutionary and the future seemed wide open.