It's been 10 years since the Counting Crows' first single “Mr. Jones” hooked listeners with its Van Morrison-esque “Sha-la-la” opening, and introduced the world to the distinctive songwriting of Adam Duritz. The Crows' sound, which distilled influences from the classic rock canon, grounded Duritz's heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics with music you already felt familiar with, and associated it with authenticity.
Hard Candy, the Crows' most recent release, is no exception to the rule. From the opening Byrds-like electric 12-string riff, to the literal evocation of The Band on “Richard Manuel Is Dead,” to the CSNY-style backup vocals on “Why Should You Come When I Call?” the album is a delight for classic rock lovers. But there are also some surprises, too: “New Frontier” is an homage to new wave, complete with analog synth solo; and the album's hidden track, a cover of Joni Mitchell's “Big Yellow Taxi,” combines acoustic guitars with a hip hop beat. For his part, Duritz continues to tackle the anatomy of heartache. His honesty and emotion, matched with the sunny guitars of a track like “Hard Candy” or the propulsive rock of “American Girls,” make for the same great chemistry found on other Crows' records.
Hard Candy is remarkable for its roster of famous guest vocalists: pop diva Sheryl Crow, up-and-comer Leona Naess, retro-rocker Matthew Sweet and recent radio sensation Ryan Adams (who co-wrote one song with Duritz). Duritz, however, says that this impressive collection of guest stars was not assembled by design: “With our records, we tend to be camped out in a house for a long time, and people stop by and end up on the record.”
For instance, Adams is a friend of the band and one of the album's producers, Ethan Johns, which explains his presence on the record. One day, Adams brought his friend Naess to the studio. On a whim, they had her try a part on “Black and Blue” that Duritz and guitarist David Immerglück had been singing in falsetto. “I didn't really think anything of it at the time, but when we were mixing, I went and listened to it, and it was so good that we took our vocals off it,” says Duritz. “So, it almost accidentally ended up on the album.”
For “American Girls,” the album's craftily catchy hit about a failed affair with a fan, Duritz admits that some thought went into the process of selecting Sheryl Crow for the track. Duritz and Interscope president Jimmy Iovine had been listening to mixes of Crow's most recent album, C'mon C'mon, in Iovine's office, “and that sort of segued into a conversation about ‘American Girls,’” Duritz says, “because I was very dissatisfied with ‘American Girls.’ We'd fixed a lot of things about it, but the choruses were just horribly anthemic and annoying to me.
“[Jimmy] said, ‘Part of the problem might be that you have all these guys singing these high parts really hard, really loud. What if you got a girl to sing it? She could sing the high part softer, and it could give it a sexier thing.’ Because it's not supposed to be an anthem; it's a nasty little song. And Sheryl came up because we're all on the same label, and we had literally just been sitting there listening to her mixes. And everyone knows Sheryl is the great backup vocalist. So it was just a no-brainer.” Duritz talked to Crow at a party a few days later, and she agreed to do it.
Originally, the Crows thought they would record Hard Candy with several different producers, potentially a different one for each track. So during the first six weeks of recording, the band worked with three producers, including Johns (Whiskytown, Ryan Adams) and British pop veteran Steve Lillywhite (XTC, U2, Peter Gabriel). “Once we got into it, we realized that we just loved working with Lillywhite, and so we changed our plans,” Immerglück says. He admits, however, that he was hesitant when Lillywhite's name first came up in discussions.
“I was like, ‘He's the guy who was responsible for putting up all those bands with the funny haircuts, that horrible drum sound that everyone started using and those chemical-sounding guitars. That's what I was thinking before I actually met him and we started working with him. And I was dead-wrong. I think the world of that guy. I'd work with him again in a second.”
Contrary to what you might think, Lillywhite wasn't responsible for the album's new wave number, “New Frontier.” “‘New Frontier’ wasn't [Lillywhite] saying, ‘I know how to do this '80s sound,’” Immerglück says. “I think it just sort of happened. I had that particular guitar part with the Echoplex on it that sounded like The Police. Charlie heard that, and he says, ‘Okay, you're gonna do that and I'm gonna pull out this synthesizer sound — we're gonna go all the way.’ Next thing you know, it was full-on Flock of Seagulls!”
While Lillywhite was the primary producer, the Crows did end up working with Johns on several of the album's songs. Duritz enjoyed getting the chance to work with two producers, because it allowed the band to get different perspectives on their music. “Ethan comes at it from a musician's perspective, whereas Steve comes at it from being — well, he used to be — one of those producers who had a ‘sound,’” Duritz says.
For the studio location, the Crows stayed true to their tradition of recording in a big house in Los Angeles. “It's just a different kind of environment to record in. You get a vibe for a record,” says Immerglück. “I don't like being in a studio,” says Duritz. “I don't even like mixing in them, but you have to. I find them to be sterile environments for something that is not in the least bit sterile. I feel creative in houses.”
Unlike the recording of earlier albums, the Crows toured during Hard Candy, going from the studio to the road and back every few weeks. “I thought it was really good,” says Immerglück. “It broke things up. It let us get away from it, let us get into just being a band — playing. I'm not saying that you get stagnant being in the studio, but it can happen. I think for this band, it was really great for shaking things up and keeping things fresh for when we got in the studio.”
To create the classic guitar sounds the Crows are fond of, the band has plenty of vintage gear. Immerglück favors a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe guitar, as well as the Fender Stratocaster he's been playing for more than 20 years. When recording, he often uses these in combination with small amps such as a '59 Fender Tweed Deluxe. “I tend to try and use older, small tube guitar amps, the kind that if you were playing in a nightclub with a band, wouldn't be loud enough to rise above the drums,” he explains. “But if you record with those kind of amps, you get the best guitar sound, because the mics don't get overloaded by the huge, heavy metal Marshall stack. If you try and record a really loud guitar amp, it doesn't come across loud on tape. It hurts the microphone. You can record with a smaller amp — the mic can pick up a wider range of frequency. Once it's on tape, you can turn it up as loud as you want. It's actually an old Jimmy Page trick: He used tiny little amps for all of the Led Zeppelin records.” Immerglück admits, however, that he also used some of his larger stage amps for the recording, including a '63 Fender Pro Reverb and a '72 Savage.
For Immerglück, the key to recording is catching the moment of creativity in the act. “A lot of times, it's the early takes, right after the band gets greased up, but before it's gotten to the automatic-pilot mode. There's usually a window there where you can catch some good stuff,” he says. “If you can catch yourself coming up with a part while the tape is recording, the recording device responds to that; I really believe that. You can hear a spontaneous thing happening, rather than someone who has worked something out. If you can catch that moment on tape, that's some gold there. I call it lightning in a bottle.”