Out There

A murder of two
Recovering the Satellites
Counting Crows
Geffen Records

Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow
A&M Records

These two sophomore albums are attempts at redefinition, but the efforts work for one--to a degree--and fail the other. Counting Crows' debut persona was that of the outsider, and their use of mandolins and accordions posited them as some post-punk version of The Band. From the first shimmering guitar chord that starts off Recovering the Satellites, the Crows seem to be trying to crawl out from under that sound--their music's harder, crunchier, more electric. Although the rainy-day feel of alienation and disillusionment is still very much present, the band has traded some of their hipster detachment for rock heroism--or at least heroics (witness the Deep Purple organ that starts "Children in Bloom," accented by a tearing guitar solo).

Still, the band seems conflicted. After spending three-quarters of Satellites yearning for constancy and grounding, singer Adam Durwitz--on the title track, no less--resolves to "get back to basics" and asks a bruised co-dreamer "Why'd you come home for?" That's the tension that powers this album, whose muddled protagonists reject their own world but are unable to provide a working alternative, and--as in "Hey Monkey"--welcome back a bad habit, because even bad company is better than no company at all.

While her major-label debut presented her as a gritty, cocky, and self-empowered female--a kind of Alanis-as-waitress--certain parts of Sheryl Crow's equation didn't balance out: She was too bright to really drive out to Barstow for a one-night stand. On Sheryl Crow, she moves away from her debut sound (slick SoCal Americana) toward a more electro-industrial thang, with fuzzed-out guitars up front and a fat, hip-hoppy beat in the background.

Her smarts, however, continue to trip her up. Despite her friendship with brilliant angst-meister David Baerwald, the things that end up bugging Crow aren't particularly new or surprising--paranoia about aliens, religion, and angels ("Maybe Angels"); domestic disillusionment ("Home"); and guns, politics, and hippie escapism ("Love is a Good Thing," which ends up saying that the world is scary and mixed-up). Duh.

It's a credit to Crow's skill as a songwriter and to her ear for hooks and form that you seldom notice her secondhand ideas, but amid her newfound heaviness you find yourself wishing that the party girl--however contrived--would stop by again.

--Matt Weitz

 
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