Almost universally maligned as a once-relevant band’s career-twilight last-ditch stab at relevancy, the all-covers album more often than not allows a bereft-of-inspiration artist to court a last gasp of sweet, sweet mainstream success by promising songs the listener already knows and loves, and not those pesky tepid originals that said artist has been peddling for the past twenty years or so to increasingly-diminishing returns.

So began a review I once penned for this very website, wherein I thoroughly panned Puddle of Mudd’s awful covers record, Re:(disc)overed, and paid grudging respect to (but still kinda panned) Powerman 5000’s Copies, Clones & Replicants, also a covers record, released on the same exact day. Perhaps it’s simple bias that leads me to backtrack on that sentiment in light of Counting Crows’ newest album, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), in which the Californian folk-rockers (with bonus pop chops) stop writing original tunes and burn through fifteen tracks of country, folk, and southern-rock chestnuts.

I’m not so sure that’s the case, though; after all, the Crows found it difficult to cobble together an album of cohesive material as recently as 2008, when their Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings yielded a collective “it’s… okay, I guess.” No, there are two factors that make Underwater Sunshine work: 1. A rollicking tracklist that never lingers for too long on the too-recognizable or too-covered, which can often make the album simply sound like fresh Counting Crows material, and 2. A band that sounds, after something of a hiatus, remarkably rejuvenated.

And, refreshingly, it’s not the most familiar material that holds the attention. Sure, the Crows nail perfunctory covers of Pure Prairie League’s “Amie” and The Faces’ “Ooh La La”, but they’re also the two songs that stick most closely to the script, their well-traveled melodies popping with the same verve they ever did, complete with faithful tempos and immaculate backing vocals. No, the Counting Crows of Underwater Sunshine are at their most energetic and passionate when digging a bit deeper into the vaults; vocalist Adam Duritz sings like a man possessed by his own youth in the simmering “Untitled (Love Song)” and a twitchy take on Coby Brown’s “Hospital”. Throughout, the instrumentalists prove themselves a well-oiled machine, a churning, organic collective of country rockers capable of injecting Fairport Convention’s sterling “Meet on the Ledge” with a Black Crowes-circa-1992 blues-rock stomp, or plumping Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” with sprightly acoustics and nimble saloon piano. Really, the covers album that Underwater Sunshine most closely resembles is Bruce Springsteen’s sweaty hoedown record We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions; it’s not as politically charged, and it’s considerably more plugged in, but with the guitars tuned to “90’s alternative”, the guitars tuned to “Gram Parsons”, and the mandolins tuned to “awesome”, the Counting Crows prove themselves valiant and spirited interpreters.

It helps that Duritz (who, reportedly, dug deep into his record collection to unearth many of these inspired selections) is both capable of finding songs that snugly fit his artistic voice and amenable to classics both new and old – in addition to country-rock trailblazers, Duritz and Co tip the hat to relative contemporaries like Teenage Fanclub and Dawes. The result is that rare covers album that fits comfortably in the band’s discography – it’s important to note that the Crows streamline any potential disjoint between old and young with remarkable consistency of sound, and then make that sound consistent with their own artistic milieu. They may turn up the country a bit more than the norm, but they tie every selection into their own ouvre with ease.

And so, despite natural misgivings about covers records and how bereft of actual inspiration they tend to be, the Counting Crows have bucked the odds and delivered a late-career tribute album that sounds more like inspired artistic homage than it does stopgap filler. Crafted with love and performed to the hilt, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) is actually pretty awesome.

Grade: B+

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