There is a word for a guy like Adam Duritz, the lead singer and head songwriter for the Counting Crows: that word is pretentious. There was a time when he was called a genius, but after you hear the songs on his band's latest CD and check out the photos of him in the liner notes, cavorting around in his thrift store duds and white-guy dreds, you realize that was a long time ago.
Back in 1993, the Counting Crows burst out of Berkeley onto the national scene with one of the great albums of the 1990s, August and Everything After. "Discovered" by David Geffen and produced by T-Bone Burnett, it wasn't as out of the blue as it might have seemed at the time, but it was still something to behold for a first outing, with classics like "Mr. Jones," "Sullivan Street" and "Rain King." Now, nearly a decade later, it looks like it's a case of artistic lightning only striking once a lifetime.
Counting Crows aren't terrible by a long shot -- it's just that after August and Everything After, even slipping to mediocrity is quite a fall. Hard Candy shows a band experimenting with new sounds, from the flugelhorn to vocals from the likes of Ryan Adams and Sheryl Crow. Still, none of it adds up to much. "American Girls" is a shadow of a cliche that has been turned into song way too many times; a cynical listen says it's their calculated best shot at radio airplay. "Butterfly in Reverse," co-written with Adams, seems to trace its ancestry to those songs featured on soft hits of the '70s compilations; "Mary Ann, you're better than the world," is the cheese-laden hook.
There are a couple tracks, however, that live up to their past glory. The record's best tune, "Up All Night" exhibits the soul (and genius) that Duritz has somewhere deep inside and showcases his distinctive vocals. It's an epic jam that hearkens back to '93 by pairing poetry and music. And the title track, "Hard Candy," is the successful pure pop song that "American Girls" fails to be.
Finally, there's a gimmick. The liner notes warn that the CD "May contain trace amounts of Joni Mitchell," and if you let the last track run a minute past its conclusion you'll get treated to a successful updating of "Big Yellow Taxi." As with "Up All Night," Duritz sounds more relaxed, and it's one of the CDs best tracks. But when your throwaway cover outshines most of your own offerings, it's not good.