By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
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.