Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sound Of The Crowd

Crowded House are surely one of the most contradictory bands in the history of popular music. Every time it looked like they were on the verge of commercial success, they appeared to deliberately shy away from the implications of international stardom. Just after chart success arrived in the UK in the form of “Weather With You” and “Four Seasons In One Day”, frontman Neil Finn’s brother Tim decided to leave the band. A few years later in 1996, Neil himself decided to call it a day when the band were at the height of their success following the release of their greatest hits album “Recurring Dream”. Neil agreed with this accusation:

I am a mass of contradictions. I am always ambitious for the songs, but there was an anxiety attached to celebrity that I recoiled from. I don’t really like being famous. What I like is a song being famous.

With his rich sense of melody, sumptuous harmonies and mysterious yet accessible lyrics, Neil Finn is indeed widely recognised as a truly outstanding songwriter. Finn is from New Zealand and his songs have an edge and non-conformism that comes from being nurtured outside of the American/British musical mainstream. A Crowded House song found the happy medium between sounding instantly approachable, but at the same time being something deeper and more transcendental. Although full of precise, poetic lines, the beautiful lyrics are still ambiguous enough for personal interpretation. As Finn said:

I figure if you leave a series of doors slightly open, then people can go through any one of them. I rely on a process of things dropping into my head from the here and now and then immediately suggesting something in the ethereal world as well. That mixing up of the domestic side of life and greater truths is kind of what fuels the songs.

"Driving in my car"

Their music was permeated with a sense of loss, but simultaneously uplifted by an appreciation of life. Even when a song delivers a poignant or melancholy message, there is always a touch of lightness or humour hidden within another layer. The lyrics may be darkly reflective, but the lightness of the fantastic melodies can still raise your spirits. Some joked that Crowded House were a little bit like the second coming of The Beatles. That’s a bit steep, but the comparison is not completely invalid, when you consider the superb song craft, the satisfying blend of pop with an adventurous sound palette and the barely concealed depth running throughout their work.

There is a sense that their songs and spirit are rooted in everyday struggles. Even the band’s name alludes to the cramped quarters they shared in Los Angeles when making their first album. Before forming Crowded House, Neil Finn and drummer Paul Hester had for many years been striving to make their mark with cult New Zealand band Split Enz, so it was maybe inevitable that their music would reflect this journey.

"Here come the Men in Black"

Woodface” was the band’s commercial high-water mark, featuring most of their hit singles, but “Together Alone” was their artistic masterpiece, an altogether darker and more atmospheric record. This was an astonishing departure, much more ambitious, exotic and multi-layered. It felt like a windswept coastline compared to the sun-drenched pop of “Woodface” (“Chocolate Cake”, anyone?) Neil once again started to write meaningful, heartfelt songs, which maybe he had been too shy to sing in the presence of his older brother, Tim, who had been such a driving force on the classic pop tunes of “Woodface”. If previous albums could have been accused of being too mannered, “Together Alone” captured Crowded House at their most raw and emotional.

Released in October 1993, “Together Alone” packs quite an eclectic punch. More experimental and musically varied than any of their previous outings, the album explores a multitude of mood and style, ranging from dreamy ballads to powerful balls out rock. Hip dance producer Martin Glover, better known as Youth from Killing Joke, was hired to bring more spontaneity to the recording process with the idea of creating a more organic and less polished sound, resulting in the most complex, adventurous and insightful effort in the band’s discography.

"Black and White Boy"

More distorted, effects-laden guitars than heard before helped the band achieve a heightened sense of ambience and slightly off-centre arrangements imbued a sense of brooding to the whole affair. Densely layered, the melancholy lurking around the edges of much of the band’s material came out of the shadows into the foreground. Like all of the group’s best efforts, ugly scenes are juxtaposed with pretty, enticing guitars to retain an air of looseness, ensuring that the brilliance of Finn’s songwriting is never lost in the mix.

The album was recorded at an isolated beach called Kare Kare on the west coast of New Zealand (“the end of the earth”, as Finn called it) and the primal wonder of the location washes through into the record’s grooves. Finn pays tribute to his native Kiwi homeland from the opening track “Kare Kare” to the anthemic closer “Together Alone”. Obviously named after the beach, “Kare Kare” is a wonderful mood setting song, perfectly capturing the aesthetic mood of the place with melancholic strings and a delay-ridden, high-pitched guitar calling like a whale in the distance, “Sleep by no means comes too soon/In a valley lit by the moon”.

"On bass ... Magnum P.I."

The amazingly powerful title track closes the album with an evocative meditation on loneliness and death, “Together alone/Shallow and deep/Holding our breath/Paying death no heed/I'm still your friend/When you are in need/As is once will always be/Earth and sky/Moon and sea”. Utilising a traditional Maori choir and log drummers, the song is a spectacular achievement that crosses cultural boundaries, but above all is a great finale.

There are many other equally emotional, profoundly moving songs that combine to form a sublime collection, a smouldering elegy to a relationship too painful to continue, but too inextricable to fully exorcise. “Private Universe” is a gem, an under-stated epic that may just be the best thing that Neil Finn has ever done. It crackles with strange, shimmering noises and other sonic distortions, creating a disturbing ambience, as we enter Neil’s most personal sanctuary where love is truly all he needs, “I will run for shelter/Endless summer lift the curse/It feels like nothing matters/In our private universe”.

"Hello, Sydney"

Just as emotionally powerful, “Distant Sun” is probably the most accurate, heart-rending description of a man’s view of marriage as you will ever hear, “Easy to forget what you learn/Waiting for the thrill to return/Feeling your desire burn/As you’re drawn to the flame”. What is already a deeply affecting song manages to find an even higher gear, when Finn cries out with all of his heart, “I don’t pretend to know what you want/But I offer love”.

The trance-like “Fingers Of Love” is a worthy heir to the exquisite “Fall At Your Feet” with a wonderfully psychedelic feel, “Can you imagine that/An itch too sensitive to scratch/The light that falls through the cracks/An insect too delicate to catch”. The title of “Nails In My Feet” speaks for itself, but says nothing of the gentle, fresh melody, its extended metaphor (“My life is a house/You crawl through the window/Skip across the floor and into the reception room”) or the seamless passage to its conclusion, “And it brings me relief”.

"A tired Neil Finn"

Several rockier tracks offer a lively contrast to the slower songs and are far more intense than their counterparts on previous albums, leaving the listener in no doubt that commercial objectives are not paramount. The thundering “Black And White Boy” contains the grungiest guitar you could ever want. The song is obviously written about a friend suffering from wild mood swings (“And you're full of the wonder of spring/It's all sweetness and lightness you bring/ But when demons have climbed on your back/You are vicious and quick to attack”), so many believe that it’s about Paul Hester, the band’s drummer, who tragically committed suicide in 2005.

The manic “Locked Out” feels like it’s been influenced by the Madchester sound, as it describes the end of a relationship, “And I know we’re through/But I can’t begin to face up to the truth/And I wait so long for the walls to crack/But I know that I’ll one day have you back”. The creepy “In My Command” owes much to The Beatles’, sitting somewhere between “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper”, cleverly alternating a power-pop chorus with hell-raising guitar licks, “I would love/To trouble you in your time of need/Lose your way/It's a pleasure when you're in my command”. Like many Paul Hester compositions, “Skin Feeling” was very popular during live shows, “I'm looking old/I'm feeling young/It's the truth, my child/My second life has just begun”.

"Whispers and Moans"

Catherine Wheels” with Tim Finn on backing vocals sounded more like earlier Crowded House, probably because another version had been written years before. This is a moody, slower tempo piece, once again about a break-up, “She was always the first to say gone/She's got her Catherine wheels on”. In a similar vein, “Walking On The Spot” is a short, charming song, firmly holding any subversive elements in check, though it has a lyrical grace and charm that fuses a New Zealand feel with a Celtic flavour, “Will we be in our minds when the dawn breaks?/Can we look the milkman in the eye?/The world is somehow different/You have all been changed/Before my very eyes”. Carried along by a buoyantly irresistible acoustic guitar, “Pineapple Head” is a playful romp, but has a stark message, “And if you choose to take that path/I will play you like a shark/And I’ll clutch at your heart/I’ll come flying like a spark to inflame you”.

Multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart had been drafted into the band to replace Tim Finn and his influence becomes clear as you listen to the album with his guitar and keyboards adding a new dimension to the band’s sound. Bassist Nick Seymour was an original member of "The Crowdies", as they were called by their Australian fans, and was also responsible for the album cover artwork, featuring a black background with Jesus Christ and another godlike figure in a red car. No, I don’t know what it means either. However, the band’s best instrument, as always, was Neil Finn’s voice, which carries a real emotional clarity and resonance.

"Don't Dream It's Over"

“Together Alone” was not planned as a goodbye album, but it works well as one. The band was dissolving, but had not yet realised it and this record is a clear link between the poppy sound of Crowded House and the darker, more layered work of Neil Finn’s solo career. Fortunately for us, Neil continues to write some of the most haunting, enduring songs around, sometimes solo, sometimes with brother Tim (The Finn Brothers, would you believe?) and now, over a decade later, even with a reformed Crowded House. As the man said, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”.

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