(1) Counting Crows, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation) (Collective Sounds/Tyrannosaurus). After five top-ten albums on a tony major, the last in 2008, Counting Crows have put out a set of covers on their own label, some of them from little-known or never-heard bands they came up with in Berkeley in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Every last bit of it,” singer Adam Duritz writes, “felt utterly unique and every last bit of it was being repeated somewhere else, lived by somebody else, experienced by a thousand ‘someone else’s’ in places all over like Minneapolis and Seattle and Boston and New York City and, of course, in a little town called Athens, Ga., not to mention London and Dublin and Glasgow.” As in those words, and as in all of Counting Crows’ best work, Duritz is sentimental, nostalgic, pleading, shameless; he wears his heart on his sleeve while the band, especially guitarists Dan Vickrey and David Immerglück, do their best to tear it off and throw it around the room. It becomes clear that with no period affectations, no genre inflections, Duritz is a soul singer; he sings to plumb the depths. Whether on Kasey Anderson’s 2010 “Like Teenage Gravity” or Fairport Convention’s 1969 “Meet on the Ledge,” he demands the songs explain themselves to him—why this word leads to that one, why the melody curves away from him when he thought he had it in his grasp, why the song cries out for something he can’t give but the musicians can, must—and the only way to make the songs do that is to sing them. It happens most acutely with Dawes’s 2010 “All My Failures.” In the original, the vocal is thin to the point of preciousness; you can hear the singer listening to himself. You can hear vanity, the way the song may not need you at all—and, for that matter, you don’t necessarily believe the singer believes he ever failed at anything. Counting Crows pushes hard from the start, and in the play that’s instantly under way, Duritz is a witness—to his own failures, sure, but also to yours. And then you are a witness to his, and to your own. And then you play it again, wondering why it sounds so good.
(2) Philip Kerr, Prague Fatale (Penguin). There are probably a number of reasons Kerr wrote this book, the eighth Bernie Gunther thriller, this one set in Berlin and Prague in 1941: to keep the series running, to fool around with an Agatha Christie parody that turns out to be too self-parodying for its own good, and—with a few pages on a dank room, a woman’s head, and a Nazi’s foot on a basin that are so harrowing you wish you could stop reading—to finish the argument over whether or not waterboarding is torture.
(3) Keith Richards on Robert Johnson, from “Love and War Inside the Rolling Stones,” Rolling Stone (May 23). “Robert Johnson, there’s fear there, yeah. A fear of what? If you’ve faced fear yourself, you want to tell other people that it’s faceable. There’s no point in ignoring it. That’s an element of the expression in what we’ve done, in, say, ‘Gimme Shelter.’ Fear is just a viable element, an emotion to use in a song as any other emotion.”
(4/5) Tom Jones, Spirit in the Room (Rounder). In Jones’s gnarled hands, Leonard Cohen’s 1988 “Tower of Song” is so pure in tone it can make you think of the Tower of Babel before God scattered the single human language into thousands: it’s that gorgeous. His version of Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 “Soul of a Man” has its feet in the earth. But too much of the album misfires: “Just Dropped In” isn’t half as threatening as First Edition’s 1967 original, where the parenthetical that Jones’s titling omits brought the song home even before it started: “(To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The world doesn’t need another pious journey to the grave of the “Lone Pilgrim.” As Charles Taylor reports, the real story may be playing out onstage: “On May 18, at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Jones opened the show with Cohen’s song and here it was a declaration of principles, Jones’s astounding confidence a statement of a craftsman’s undiminished pride in the face of time. In the 100 minutes of the show he did only one hit, ‘The Green Green Grass of Home,’ and that tucked into the encore. Jones covered the jubilant spiritual ‘Didn’t It Rain’ but sounded as if he were powerful enough to take sustenance from the desert, which is why it made sense when he sang about trees springing from rock. No longer needing to prove himself as a showman, Jones now seems to care only about proving himself to the music, which is why the peak of the show—an unexpected version of George Jones’s ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’—hit with the quiet devastation of Sinatra’s ‘Cottage for Sale’ or Dolly Parton’s ‘Down from Dover,’ songs that, a few lines in, you don’t know whether you’ll have the strength to get through. A story of devotion unto death, Jones made it a memorial for Jones’s great, ragged career, and made the devotion of the man in the song for the woman he has lost the story of his own dedication to the music before him.”
(6) Barack Obama, speech at National Defense University, Fort McNair (Washington, D.C., May 23). At one point in Barack Obama’s lucid defense of his administration’s terror war policies—when he got to the congressional refusal to permit the closing of Guantánamo—Medea Benjamin of Code Pink broke in from the audience: “Excuse me, Mr. President—” “Let me finish, ma’am,” he said. They went back and forth, his “To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries” answered by her “—prisoners already. Release them today.” His statements, her numbers. The crowd clapped for the president to show which side it was on—but there was nobody dragged from the room, held in protective custody, arrested for disorderly conduct, all of the presidential thuggery so familiar from the Reagan and Bush presidencies that when it doesn’t happen you think you must have missed something. “I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack,” Obama said, “because it’s worth being passionate about.” If that was meant to mollify her, it didn’t work. She would not quit—and finally the president backed off and, for nearly a minute, waited as Benjamin replaced his speech with hers. He ended with a Norman Rockwell painting—one that had, no doubt, been painted in advance, with one square erased at the last minute and filled in on the spot: “Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street; a citizen shouting her concerns at a president.”
(7) The Trajectory of Cinema, #746. 1942: Les visiteurs du soir, directed by Marcel Carné: “Two strangers dressed as minstrels… arrive at a castle in advance of court festivities—and are revealed to be emissaries of the devil, dispatched to spread heartbreak and suffering. Their plans, however, are thwarted by an unexpected intrusion: human love” (Criterion.com). 2013: The History of Future Folk, directed by John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walter: “Sent to earth to plan for a future invasion, a space alien (Nils d’Aulaire) lands in Brooklyn and instead decides to become a bluegrass musician” (New York Times, May 3).
(8) Felice Brothers, “Dream On,” from God Bless You, Amigo (thefelicebrothers.com). The Felice brothers are from the Catskills, not another planet, but they did form their bluegrass band in Brooklyn—and over five albums they have never come up with anything more affecting than this rewrite of the now almost 120-year-old Stagger Lee ballad. Most often it’s been a celebration of the African American badman, sometimes it’s been a cautionary tale, but rarely if ever has it been a dream of regret. The music moves like a quietly turning stream, carrying the killer farther and farther away from the life he could have lived if, just that once, he hadn’t pulled his gun. At the same time, the dream pulls back, so that you see Stagger Lee in the moment before his act, seeing all the way into the half-life he will live: the half-life of exile and prison, the half-life of a real person, one Lee “Stag” Shelton, who disappeared into legend years before he actually died; you can imagine him forgetting his own name.
(9) Moreland Arbuckle, 7 Cities (Telarc). A song cycle about Coronado’s search for the Seven Cities of Gold on the band’s own Kansas home ground—but you don’t need any backstory to respond to the muscle and heft on this album, especially the broken-shackles guitar on “Bite Your Tongue,” the bursting harmonica on “Time Ain’t Long,” or to realize that the group’s whole reason for being might be to set a scene where covering “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” would make perfect, glorious sense.
(10) “Izzy Young Reads Bob Dylan’s Unpublished Poem
‘Go Away You Bomb’” (soundcloud.com). In 1963, Izzy Young, proprietor of the Folklore Center in New York, asked various people for contributions to a book of anti-war poems that was never published; this year, he traveled from his home in Sweden to auction off what Bob Dylan came up with: “Go Away You Bomb.” To a small crowd, Young read it out, sounding more like Allen Ginsberg than anyone else.
At first it was laughably phony, or so phony you were supposed to be in on the joke: “My good gal don’t like you none… I don’t like it none too good.” Then there were a few lines about how the bomb was bad. Then it got clever: “ ’orrible. You’re so ’orrible the word drops its first letter and runs.” And then it went elsewhere, as the writer turned himself into his own enemy—be that the villains of “Masters of War” or John Wayne or Lyndon Johnson or even Cowboy Slim Pickens, yahooing his way to oblivion at the end of Dr. Strangelove, which wouldn’t happen until a year later. “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, and just for that one moment I could be you,” Dylan sang two years later, when he had gone from Greenwich Village phenom to world face; empathy has always been the key to his songwriting, but the turn this doggerel takes is still a surprise. “I want that bomb,” Dylan wrote, and Young read evenly, enjoying it as much as he might have flinched from it fifty years ago. “I want it hanging out of my pocket and dangling from my keychain. I want it strapped to my belt buckle… I want that bomb. I want it sticking out of my mouth like a cigar… I want to get up in the morning and scare the day right out of its dawn. Then I walk into the White House and say, Dig yourselves!”
NOTE: In my previous column, regarding the new film Twenty Feet from Stardom, I mistakenly attributed the performance of “Southern Man” to Lisa Fischer. It was by Merry Clayton. My apologies. —G. M.