Happy 25th Anniversary to Counting Crows’ debut album August and Everything After, originally released September 14, 1993.
As debut albums go, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After is a sterling example of what happens when good songs and expert production fuse in exactly the right place and time: a record that, twenty-five years down a long winding road of musical fads and fashion, is viewed as a strength of an era’s sonic landscape rather than a consequence of it.
Evolving from San Francisco Bay Area alt-rock outfit The Himalayans, lead singer Adam Duritz and guitarist and producer David Bryson initially formed the Counting Crows as a duo in 1991. “Dave Bryson and I were just going to open mikes at bars and playing acoustic,” Duritz recalled in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone. “I don’t think I’d written ‘Mr. Jones’ yet. We had an acoustic version of ‘Round Here,’ the Himalayans’ song. And we’d just kill at these open mikes. I was in the Himalayans and I was singing backup for Sordid Humor, which was my favorite band. [Dave and I] got together for one more recording session and we each picked our favorite musicians. We’d opened for each other, we’d closed for each other, we’d all played in a million bands around each other. It was a really tight scene, San Francisco. There was so much music every night. And I was in three bands, so I knew everybody.”
Duritz leveraged his connections and the cachet of the Crows’ burgeoning live gig audiences to land them in music showcases for publishing conglomerates ASCAP and BMI in early 1992. Offers to sign the band came across the table almost immediately, but Geffen Records gave them the most lucrative opportunity.
“We didn’t take the offer with the most money,” Duritz confirms. “We took the offer with the most control. Geffen was going to give us total creative freedom, which is what we wanted. And they gave us firm albums. I wanted three firm albums.”
Recording August and Everything After was, at points, an exercise in pulling apart some of what Duritz, Bryson, and their counterparts had learned musically, with the ensemble comprised of Matt Malley on bass, Charlie Gillingham on keyboards, and Steve Bowman on drums at the time they entered the studio to begin session work.
“We sounded a lot like late Roxy Music,” Duritz said of the Crows’ formative esthetic “That’s kind of where Dave’s guitar leanings were from, a lot of Stone Roses kind of stuff. But I knew it was going to be dated really soon. You can hide behind effects. You need to learn to play. You need to learn to listen. On the first album I took away all of Dave’s guitar effects. We took most of Steve’s drum kit away. We took away Charlie’s synthesizers, and we made him buy a Hammond 53 organ.
We built a studio in a house, and we got in a circle, and we played and played and played and listened to each other. I didn’t even sing. T Bone Burnett [the album’s producer] played acoustic guitar and sang. I played harmonica, which I can’t play but anyone can actually play as long as you’re in the right key. And so I stood there and played harmonica until it felt like the way it was supposed to breathe. And then I went back to singing and we played the song. But it was like, man, it was brutal. The first album, oddly to me, is the most produced, slickest of the albums. Because I hadn’t learned to do it and be raw yet.”
You don’t have to be an industry savant to articulate what made lead single “Mr. Jones” a near-perfect choice to introduce the Crows to radio: it’s an indelible melodic yarn wrapped tightly around Duritz’s vivid imagery as raconteur. It’s simple and complex at the same time, using its straightforward jangle pulse as the concrete path for Duritz and his expressive vocal meandering, which abandons the balanced meter of typical pop mainlines for what comes closer to stream-of-consciousness riffing. Whatever descriptors you use to define its sound, it’s timeless.
“Mr. Jones” has sustained a remarkable shelf life throughout the Crows’ career, but although their audiences have never ceased their love affair with Duritz’ narrative, his feelings about playing the song at every gig are less consistent. “I’m much too selfish for that,” he confessed to Stereogum earlier this year. “I think I just realized at the beginning that there was a possibility, if everything worked out, that we’d be doing this over and over again, for years and years, night after night after night, and it just seemed like a mistake to do something you didn’t want to do every night. We decided early on, if there was a night where we don’t wanna play something, we don’t play it. That way, we’re always into it.”
Much of August and Everything After contends with Duritz and, in turn, his lyrical protagonists, searching for acceptance. In “Mr. Jones,” he tussles with seeking romantic affection despite his opposing self-image (“she's suddenly beautiful / we all want something beautiful / man, I wish I was beautiful”). On the set’s second single, the reflective ballad “Round Here,” he’s calculating risk on the precipice of making a significant life decision—in his specific case, committing himself to a career in music.
“We wrote this song in 1989,” Duritz shared with an Amsterdam audience about the song’s meaning during a concert in October 1999. “We were all in bands and we had shitty jobs. We would wash dishes, work in record stores and wash windows by day, so that we can be in a rock and roll band at night. And it was after college and our friends are getting on with their lives. And they had good jobs, well...boring jobs...but they made more money than we did, and they had futures and we didn't. And there comes a point in the life of everyone in a rock and roll band that you have to sort of decide, am I going to do this with my life, or am I going to go get one of those other jobs? Because I can't deal with washing dishes anymore and I can't dig any more holes, and I can't wash another window. And there are those that go, and there are those that stay. And you walk out on the edge of the world and you balance yourself there for a while and you try to figure out just which one you're gonna be.”
“Round Here” cemented the Crows’ cultural cachet in the United States, landing them appearances as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live and on The Late Show with David Letterman. It accurately captured the melancholic languor of becoming an adult—the realization that all those things that were so integral to your belief systems and ideals in your youth become less significant, or even invalid, as you get older. Which is why, to this day, when those familiar electric guitar picks begin during their live shows, “Round Here” still manages to tug on the heartstrings for most of us who are still experiencing those moments of collision between past and present.
T Bone Burnett’s production, which borrows from his folk-roots rock background he built by working with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, and on late-career projects for Roy Orbison, gives August and Everything After some of the earthy grit needed to balance Duritz’s vulnerability without obfuscating it. So, gems like the album’s third single “Rain King” and “Omaha” are singable and approachable with a bit of road dust added.
“A Murder Of One,” the fourth and final single from the album, borrows from the same pool of sentiment as the lament of big life changes of “Round Here,” although its tempo and arrangement are more urgent with knifing drums and splashes of distorted electric guitar. It, like many other of the Crows’ tracks, illustrates the power of Duritz’s voice when it escapes the introversion of its lower range and pushes upward to an emotional yelp. Although he’s generationally in good company with other frontmen who have some similar vocal qualities (Sister Hazel’s Ken Block and Blues Traveler’s John Popper come quickest to mind), the ways in which his breaks and quivers makes it singular.
The balance of the album is comprised of solid tracks like “Perfect Blue Buildings,” “Ghost Train,” and “Anna Begins,” which lean on shuffling drums and acoustic and electric guitar coloring to buoy Duritz’s introspection. The deeper negotiations of life, relationships, and heartbreak are essentially worn on his sleeve throughout, but his performances are intriguing enough that you’re happy to go on the journey with him and rest with the sadness. “Sullivan Street,” despite its punchier rolling piano undercurrent, is still rife with frailty.
But it’s the album’s sparsest and, arguably, most beautiful composition, “Raining in Baltimore” that delivers the greatest gut-punch. Durtiz claims to have written it after learning of the death of his grandmother who lived in the Charm City where he had been born. He was on tour with the Crows in Australia at the time and wrestled with the decision to return to Maryland. “I realized I'd been putting work before everything, forever," Duritz told the Baltimore Sun in 2010. "At 6 in the morning, I called American [Airlines] and said, 'You gotta find me a way home.’”
With only a piano as accompaniment, Duritz melodically and lyrically paints with brushstrokes of grey and white, making the somberness and distance he’s pushing through on his way back overseas fully tangible to the listener. It remains one of his most poignant accomplishments as a songwriter.
August and Everything After remains the Counting Crows’ commercial halcyon, with over seven million copies sold in the U.S. alone since its release. It immediately landed the band in the top five on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart and reached number two on Canada’s RPM album tally. In the UK and Australia, the album reached the top twenty. Besides Burnett’s integral presence, Jayhawks founding members Gary Louris and Mark Olson are credited on background vocals, as is singer-songwriter Maria McKee.
In 2007, the set received a deluxe reissue treatment that included demos of previously unreleased original tracks “Shallow Days,” “Mean Jupiter Blues,” and “Love and Addiction,” in addition to a cover of Woody Guthrie’s seminal “This Land Is Your Land.” A second disc folds in live performances recorded at the Élysée Montmartre in France in December 1994.
While Duritz claims that the Crows have crafted better albums since August and Everything After (and he may be right), it’s unlikely they’ll ever escape its shadow. For the millions of us who ran out to buy a copy after the first couple of times we heard “Mr. Jones” on the radio, the Crows gave us assurance that it was okay to reflect on—and be affected by—the world that was changing around us, and that there was power in singing about it.