Neil Finn grew up in the provincial town of Te Awamutu, New Zealand, and joined his brother Tim in art-rock band Split Enz as a teenaged guitarist. When they switched gears to new wave pop, Neil provided their most recognisable song, ‘I Got You’. When Tim Finn left the Enz, the younger Finn formed a new trio with an Australian rhythm section – drummer Paul Hester and bassist Mark Seymour. American Mark Hart would later join on guitar and keyboards.
Named Crowded House, they scored the #2 US hit ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, drawn from their self-titled 1986 debut. As their star faded in America, they became popular in the UK with 1991’s Woodface. They split after four records, but reunited for 2007’s Time on Earth, a memorial to Hester who passed away in 2005.
Crowded House were a well regarded live act, where Paul Hester’s irreverence complemented Finn’s earnestness. Their studio records were often a little uptight, and their live work is fun. I enjoy the live disc that came with the Recurring Dream compilation, as well as a 1991 bootleg from a Swiss show.
With a seventh Crowded House album due soon, let’s look at their six previous studio records.
#6 – Time on Earth
After a decade in hiatus, Crowded House reformed after the passing of drummer Paul Hester. Mark Hart and Nick Seymour return, alongside new drummer Matt Sherrod. Time on Earth is a remembrance to Hester, and the mood is set by moody piano ballads ‘Pour Le Monde’ and ‘People Are Like Suns’. There’s some classy Finn songcraft, but Time on Earth drags with too many slow songs.
#5 – Intriguer
The second album from Crowded House’s reunion improves upon the first. With a plethora of guests it’s akin to a Neil Finn solo album. Intriguer is more arty than anything else in Crowded House’s catalogue; Mark Hart’s keyboards and guitar, as well as the violin of guest Lisa Germano, provide these songs with sophisticated arrangements. There’s nothing on Intriguer that sounds as effortless as the best songs from Crowded House’s initial era, but the big choruses on songs like ‘Saturday Sun’ and ‘Twice If You’re Lucky’ are memorable.
#4 – Crowded House
Crowded House’s debut was successful in the US, selling a million copies on the back of the transcendent ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. A pop/rock ballad built around Finn’s Maori strum, and featuring an organ solo from producer Mitchell Froom, it established the band’s career. The band’s debut sometimes suffers from slight material and a mid-1980s sheen, but it’s worth hearing tracks like ‘Hole in the River’ and the soaring chorus of ‘World Where You Live’.
#3 – Woodface
Tim Finn was invited to join Crowded House for their third album, as he co-wrote many of the songs with Neil. Woodface boasts some of Crowded House’s best-loved songs – ‘Weather With You’, ‘It’s Only Natural’ and ‘Fall at Your Feet’- and it established the band as stars in the UK. It’s also a victim of CD era bloat – farm oddball songs like ‘Chocolate Cake’ and ‘All I Ask’ off to b-sides and cut another couple of tracks, and it would be a contender for the band’s best. Even with the bloat, it ends strongly with the overlooked gem ‘She Goes On’ and ‘How Will You Go?’. As Neil Finn later said; “I’m very fond of Woodface … but it’s about two songs too long.”
#2 – Temple of Low Men
Crowded House’s second album failed to match the success of their first in the USA. The band initially considered naming it Mediocre Follow-Up, before settling on a title that’s slang for female genitalia. Despite the lack of a hit single, Temple of Low Men is an introspective and enduring collection of songs. ‘Into Temptation’ drips with Catholic guilt, ‘Kill Eye’ recalls John Lennon, while ‘When You Come’ simmers with intent.
#1 – Together Alone
Recorded on a remote New Zealand beach with producer Youth, Together Alone injects some primal energy into Crowded House’s polite sound. Songs like ‘Black and White Boy’ and ‘Locked Out’ rock harder than anything else in their catalogue, while quieter moments like ‘Catherine Wheels’ and ‘Private Universe’ are pretty and atmospheric. ‘Distant Sun’ is the best-known track, and it’s backed up by a core of outstanding deep cuts like ‘In My Command’ and ‘Nails In My Feet’.