The covers album is a strange beast. Collections of songs by bands who were key influences or wayward distractions for the band doing the covers, these albums usually go one of two ways. There are the reverently devotional ones that genuinely wish to pay homage to original inspirations and then there are the between-proper-albums placeholders full of filler and oddball versions of unexpected or random songs. On their sixth studio album, Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), the Counting Crows fall into the nicer of the two categories, offering up 15 cover tunes, ranging from the ubiquitous to the obscure. Thankfully, the band spares us any completely stylistically incongruent numbers (reference The Spaghetti Incident? by Guns N' Roses for an embarrassing example of this), and even the more obscure songs here sound like formative shapers of the band Counting Crows became. Genuflecting liner notes back this up, with long stories from various bandmembers with anecdotes about everything from having a moment of Zen watching Dinosaur Jr. perform on Letterman for the first time to touring with Alex Chilton. The bandmembers clearly believe in these songs with all their hearts, and it shows in the performances. Their take on the dual harmonies of Teenage Fanclub's "Start Again" and the Big Star classic "The Ballad of El Goodo" highlight their love of jangly rock, while covers of more country-leaning artists like Gram Parsons and Crows side project Tender Mercies are approached with equal verve.
The band sounds at home in its interpretations and as committed to these covers as any of its own songs, possibly even too much so. Somewhere around the middle of Underwater Sunshine it becomes hard to remember this isn't a record of Counting Crows songs. The combination of close-to-the-vest song choices and the band's signature nuances (primarily singer Adam Duritz's instantly recognizable warbles and soulful emotings) tends to compress the songs into identical waves of the same spirited feelings over and over. Even when the band lets relatively loose on a drunken sendup of Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," the song never threatens to get out of line, and even the hooting and hollering seem contained. A cover of '80s college rockers Sordid Humor's "Jumping Jesus" is the album's darkest moment, and as a relatively unknown song just sounds like a newly unearthed Counting Crows dirge. That said, the Counting Crows sounding a lot like themselves when covering their most-loved bands isn't all that bad of a thing. They could have phoned it in completely on an in-between record like this, and there's enough energy here to appeal to both fans and non-obsessives. For all its heart, though, Underwater Sunshine still lacks the unborrowed inspiration necessary to come out of the gates as a stand-alone record. Even with its positive attributes, the record still turns to pleasant filler somewhere around their version of Faces' "Ooh La La" and never quite recovers.