Crowded House

Crowded House
Temple Of Low Men
Woodface
Together Alone
Afterglow
Time On Earth


Crowded House (Capitol ‘86) Rating: A-
After dissolving Split Enz, a successful New Zealand new wave band formed with his older brother Tim, Neil Finn returned with this trio (so named due to their cramped living quarters) and this highly accomplished debut album. Classic pop singles such as “World Where You Live,” “Something So Strong,” and especially “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” (the band’s biggest international hit and one of the '80s signature songs) immediately established Finn as a highly accomplished and melodic pop songwriter. His bandmates include Paul Hester, also previously in Split Enz, on drums and backing vocals, and bassist Nick Seymour, both of whom professionally complement his breezy pop confections. Finn neatly augments the standard guitar/bass/drums framework with horns, piano, and horns, as well as atmospheric keyboards and the occasional odd instrumental flourish, both trademarks of producer Mitchell Froom, who was then a virtual unknown. I can appreciate the catchy melodies and the thoughtful lyrics, too, some of which are surprisingly down-and-out considering the band’s upbeat reputation. For example, Finn pleads “I’m down on my knees, please don’t be mean to me” on (appropriately enough) “Mean To Me,” while the darkly atmospheric ballad “Hole In The River” is about auntie’s suicide. Granted, among the other songs only the elegant ballad "Tombstone" approaches the simple appeal of the classy aforementioned singles, but “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” and “Can’t Carry On” deliver catchy vocals hooks while also effectively showcasing the band's sturdy rhythm section. Sure, some songs are either overly ambitious (“That’s What I Call Love,” the lone non-Finn song, written by Hester) or unremarkable (“Love You ‘Till The Day I Die,” “I Walk Away”), as Crowded House are a much better pop band than rock band, in large part because Finn's airy pop voice is far more effective than his harsher rock voice. Another quibble I have is that Hester's drums are too loud at times, but this was still a fine first set with several radiant peaks.

Temple Of Low Men (Capitol ‘88) Rating: B+
This darker, more brooding follow up was a comparative commercial failure, and it remains the album in the band’s early catalogue that's most likely to be overlooked. And while I agree that the highs here don’t jump out at you like on the debut, the hooks are there; they’re just more subtle and require more time to appreciate. OK, I’ll admit that Finn’s songwriting is less easily likeable then on Crowded House, but the album’s impressive overall sound compensates for the most part. In general, the band's sound is comprised of Finn playing jangly electric or low-key acoustic guitars, bright, atmospheric keyboards again played by producer Froom, big beats from Hester that are sometimes at odds with the understated material, and Seymour's bass holding it all down. A noticeable improvement on this album is in the production, which is much less likely to sound dated with '80s techniques, and the album does have its fair share of strong (if not classic) songs. For example, "Into Temptation" is a gorgeous ballad in Finn's best style, “When You Come” is likewise very natural sounding and easy on the ears, and “Never Be The Same” is both atmospheric and deceptively catchy, with some fine falsetto vocals from Finn. I also like the jangly guitars on “I Feel Possessed” and “Love This Life,” two pretty ballads that are just a little bit funky, plus a line like “I love this life, 'till a better one comes" shows what a clever lyricist Finn is. Elsewhere, Richard Thompson adds a little guitar muscle to “Sister Madly,” an atypical track that shuffles along on a jazzy groove and contains a singable chorus. Really, aside from the grating rocker "Kill Eye" (again, a general rule is that ballads and pop songs = good, loud rockers = not so good) and the overly sweet ballad “Better Be Home Soon,” this album delivers consistent quality. Although not Finn's strongest songwriting effort, this "grower" of an album doesn’t deserve its status as the semi-forgotten Crowded House album. Indeed, Finn's subtle yet appealing songs and the impressive overall mood of Temple Of Low Men makes it worthy of sitting on the shelf beside the band’s other albums. That said, even though this is a quality release I don't reach for it nearly as often as Crowded House, Woodface, or Together Alone.

Woodface (Capitol ‘91) Rating: A
This Beatlesque pop album reunited Neil Finn with his older brother Tim, sparking both of their creative juices and lending a newfound clarity to the band's direction. In addition to his writing contributions (Tim co-writes 8 of the 14 songs here), Tim’s high pitched voice greatly strengthens the band’s airy vocal harmonies, while Hester and Seymour lend typically solid support throughout on the band’s most straightforward collection of songs. Not that they don’t deliver their customary quirks - just witness the bouncy cynicism of “Chocolate Cake” and lyrics like “there goes God, in his sexy pants and his sausage dog” (whatever that means). However, it’s the charmingly simple songwriting that consistently sparkles, as most of these songs are bright and catchy pop gems that are imbued with a wit and charm that are irresistible. Including effortlessly pleasurable pop songs (“It’s Only Natural,” “Weather For You,” “There Goes God”) and beautiful ballads (“Fall At Your Feet,” “Four Seasons In One Day,” “She Goes On,” “How Will You Go”), Woodface almost reads like a greatest hits album of all new material. That these songs weren’t actual hits here in the U.S. is irrelevant, especially since this more acoustic, less keyboards-based album was a major hit in the U.K. and Europe. Sure, the band can get a bit syrupy at times (“when you wake up with me, I’ll be your glass of water”), and they remain far less effective on their infrequent faster efforts, again primarily due to Neil’s unerringly pleasant but decidedly un-rocking voice. Still, the album is so consistently strong that any faults that I have with Woodface are minor, and there’s just enough variety in the instrumentation (the prominent harmonica on “There Goes God” and the strings-dominated “All I Ask,” for example) to keep things sounding fresh throughout. Simply put, pop music doesn’t get much better than the gorgeous “Fall At Your Feet,” the delightfully breezy “Weather For You,” and the devastatingly moving “She Goes On,” a love letter to a dearly departed. As such, I consider Woodface to be an early '90s classic that should greatly appeal to fans of The Beatles or Squeeze (to cite two obvious influences), and which should pleasantly surprise anyone who merely thinks of Crowded House as a cute little band who had a couple of hits.

Together Alone (Capitol ‘93) Rating: A
With Tim going back to his solo career and with multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart joining the band, this became the final proper Crowded House studio album until their comeback album Time On Earth fourteen years later. It features thirteen highly atmospheric songs that have a decidedly produced feel, a good thing in this case as the gauzy, spacious sound provided by producer Martin Glover (a.k.a. Youth) brings to mind the ambient feel of Daniel Lanois’ stellar productions. Pretty ballads and airy harmonies are the predictable highlights, and Neil Finn’s unerring sense of melody ensures that each song has something to recommend it. Mellower tracks like “Kare Kare,” “Nails In My Feet,” “Fingers of Love,” “Pineapple Head,” “Distant Sun,” and “Catherine Wheels” are instantly attractive, and Finn also goes well beyond effortless pop by continually incorporating eclectic twists. Whereas Woodface delivered the band’s purest pop (edging out Crowded House), Together Alone is the band’s most mysterious and experimental release (edging out Temple Of Low Men), though it's still quite accessible as well. Some examples of the album's eclectic nature include the delicate tribal drums that add an exotic air to the superb “Private Universe” (the whispered intimacy of which makes me feel like I’m overhearing a private conversation), the flute flourishes and accordion accompaniment that highlights “Walking On The Spot,” and the Mâori choir that enhances the Peter Gabriel-like title track. The band even rocks effectively on “Black & White Boy,” “Locked Out,” and "In My Command," the latter of which features a lovely harmonized chorus as well. And though the band can still occasionally veer towards pleasant blandness, such instances are few and far between on Together Alone, which was a sonically adventurous yet consistently tuneful and often-gorgeous album that further confirmed Crowded House's status as a superb pop band.

Afterglow (Capitol ‘99) Rating: B+
Given that Crowded House only have four fine studio albums, their Recurring Dream: The Very Best Of Crowded House (1996) compilation wasn't really all that useful (though it did have three previously unreleased tracks, including the lovely "Not The Girl You Think You Are"). Instead, fans of the band would be better served in getting this b-sides and rarities compilation, which is much better than most such collections. Of course, that's not surprising given the band's track record for consistent quality, and the truth is that most of these songs were simply held aside because they didn't fit a particular album rather than because they were inferior. Well, some of the songs are inferior, such as Paul Hester's novelty number "My Telly's Gone Bung" (kind of a guilty pleasure, actually), and I can see why songs such as "I Love You Dawn" and "Lester" (about Finn's wife and dog, respectively) had never before seen the light of day, either, as they're far more direct and personal from a lyrical perspective than what Finn usually allows. Actually, both of those songs are somewhat slight musically, but that lighter touch is actually part of this album's appeal (and yes, it does hold together surprisingly well as an actual album), though the band's trademark atmospheric textures, jangly guitars, and airy harmonies are all over the album as well. At first I thought the alternate version of "Private Universe" was padding, but the drum-less version here is even more hushed and intimate than on Together Alone (though I still prefer the original version), making it rival other highlights such as "I am In Love" (there goes that lyrical directness again, though the quality of this song, which is both rocking and dreamy, is so difficult to deny that it must've been hard to hold back) as well as "You Can Touch," "Anyone Can Tell," and "Time Immemorial," three poppier efforts that are highlighted by their airy harmonies, and "Recurring Dream," an excellent early pop song that, oddly enough, is not a repeat from the "best of." Fittingly, seven of these thirteen songs originated from the Woodface sessions (before Tim became involved with the recording) and three from Together Alone; even more fittingly, the compilation (and the curtain on the band's career, at least until Time On Earth) ends with lines like "it was good while it lasted but now it has gone" and "the house that we live in is falling apart." Well, it was quite a house there for awhile; though the band were low on image and were probably not as popular as they should've been as a result (at least in the U.S. - as previously mentioned they had much more success elsewhere), they were high on strong, defiantly adult songwriting and professional yet passionate performances. That quality continues with Afterglow, which is a real find for diehards as well as a worthwhile purchase for any pop music connoisseur.

Time On Earth (Capitol ‘07) Rating: B+
Neil Finn kept busy after the dissolution of Crowded House, recording a pair of solo albums (Try Whistling This in 1998 and One Nil in 2001) and a pair of albums with brother Tim as The Finn Brothers (Finn in 1995 and Everyone Is Here in 2004). It's likely that Crowded House would’ve stayed dormant if not for the tragic suicide death of former drummer Paul Hester on March 26, 2005, which brought Finn and Seymour together again as they commiserated in their grief while they were also working on the live album Farewell To The World, which was released in 2006. In truth, I've always felt that Hester's drumming was the weak link in the band, at least in the studio; in concert, as the band's unofficial court jester, was where he was really essential, or so I've heard as I never personally saw the band in concert. Regardless, he is certainly missed by his former bandmates, who one might say reunited to pay tribute to Hester's memory, as the specter of Hester haunts many of these tracks, most of which were recorded with session musicians and producer Ethan Johns, though Steve Lillywhite produced the four tracks played by the current version of the band that includes Mark Hart rejoining their ranks along with new drummer Matt Sherrod. Sherrod and the other session guys play with a restraint that was sometimes lacking from Hester, but that's not the only thing that's changed, as Finn's voice has deepened a bit, and from what I can tell the band uses piano and strings (which are a tad too syrupy at times) more prominently than in the past. The album probably runs a few songs too long, but like all Crowded House albums this one contains many quality songs and does nothing to change my opinion that Neil Finn is one of the finest pop songwriters of the past 25 years. That said, for the most part these songs didn't instantly grab me like those housed (har har) on the band's best albums, rather this album is subtly ingratiating, though the supremely catchy and passionate "Don't Stop Now," the obvious choice as the album's first single, is an instantly appealing exception. This song features Johnny Marr on guitar, and Marr also plays on "Even A Child," a groovy up-tempo number that he also co-wrote, while "Silent House," the album's longest track which surges impressively, was co-written with the Dixie Chicks (in fact it had already appeared on their Taking The Long Way album). All the other songs are solo Finn compositions, not surprising as this was originally supposed to be a solo album, much like Woodface was supposed to be a Finn Brothers album before it morphed into a proper Crowded House album. Back on point, other songs that stand out from a musical standpoint are "She Called Up," a lightly funky new wave ditty whose sad lyrics directly addressing Hester contrast with its upbeat pop melody, and "Transit Lounge," which features dreamy interjections from vocalist Beth Rowley. "Nobody Wants To," also seemingly about Hester, is a quiet, pretty ballad with a melancholic air about it, while "You Are The One To Make Me Cry" and "People Are Like Suns" fittingly close the album with a pair of cry in your beer ballads that again seemingly address Hester's suicide directly and loss in general. Anyway, lest you think this is one big mopefest, I'll also mention that there are several peppier tunes as well, but as with all Crowded House albums it's the ballads and pop songs that are preferable. Time On Earth certainly isn't the best place to begin exploring Crowded House, and I wouldn't rank it with the band's best albums, but it is a fitting tribute to their fallen friend as well as a worthy continuation of the Crowded House name.

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