Neil Finn grew up in the provincial town of Te Awamutu, New Zealand, and joined his brother Tim in the art-rock band Split Enz as a teenage guitarist. When they switched gears to new wave pop, Neil provided their most recognisable song, ‘I Got You’. After Tim Finn left the Enz, the younger Finn formed a less unwieldy band. Crowded House was initially a three-piece band with an Australian rhythm section, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Mark Seymour. American Mark Hart would later join on guitar and keyboards.
Crowded House 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. Crowded House 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.
#7 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.
#6 Dreamers are Waiting
Neil Finn and Nick Seymour are joined by a new supporting cast on Crowded House’s seventh album, Dreamers Are Waiting. Producer Mitchell Froom is on keyboards, while Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy are on guitars and drums. It’s a nice lineup, but Dreamers are Waiting features a pensive set of songs that take a while to warm to.
The second album from Crowded House’s reunion improves upon the first. With a plethora of guests, Intriguer is akin to a Neil Finn solo album. Intriguer is artier than anything else in Crowded House’s catalogue; Mark Hart’s keyboards and guitar, as well as the violin of guest Lisa Germano, furnish 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 #2 single ‘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. Elsewhere the debut sometimes suffers from slight material and a mid-1980s sheen. It’s worth hearing tracks like ‘Hole in the River’ and the soaring chorus of ‘World Where You Live’.
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. 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’.
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I was introduced to the work of Crowded House by a friend and colleague who, like me, was a musician. I had just discovered Nirvana and couldn’t wait to tell him about Nevermind. He in turn was very excited about his new discovery: Woodface. So that is where I started and for me it is comfortably Crowded House’s best album. Yes, there are some oddities on it and I could live without Chocolate Cake, which just gets in the way of the fabulous It’s Only Natural, but I played the album incessantly for a year. While Weather With You is one of Neil Finn’s more bland efforts (which doesn’t bother the general public as much as it does me), I loved the way he worked the address of his house (57 Mount Pleasant Street) into the lyrics. The work of a craftsman, it seemed to me. A personal favourite is the achingly sad How Will You Go, a story of someone’s struggle with alcohol which, as a bit of a booze-hound myself, nails the subject perfectly.
So, number one, Woodface. I then worked backwards through Temple of Low Men and the first album, both of which have their moments but, in my opinion, were mere preparation for the main event. Together Alone takes second place for me, with some great stuff like Pineapple Head but also a bit too much of the aforementioned blandorama (Private Universe and Distant Sun, for instance, and again I know most people won’t agree).
And that’s where it ends for me. Reformations and renaissances generally don’t interest me because they never quite recapture the original magic.
Honorable mention: while the Finn album is the brothers rather than the band, it’s full of good stuff if you look past the deliberately undercooked production.
By the way, Neil Finn as part of Fleetwood Mac? Hmm. Fleetwood! McVie! My office. Now.
I really like that 1995 Finn album – it’s kind of low-key and indie. The second one, from 2004, is far less interesting as they lapsed into adult contemporary.
Woodface is kind of different as it had Tim Finn in there as well, and all of the songs you mentioned in your comment were co-written by Tim. ‘In Love With It All’ from Tim Finn’s 1993 album probably should have been on Woodface – it’s another really good co-write from that era.
The reunion stuff misses Hester – he was a pretty important member, especially live.
Buckingham is irreplaceable, even though I really like Finn and Mike Campbell (whose band was the subject of my last worst to best post a couple of weeks ago).
Love Crowded House- saw them a decade ago for $10- best money I ever spent. Wish they had been more productive as far as albums go over the years but I like all of them. I think I”d have the debut album a few notches higher but all the albums are great in my book. Favorite CH song- “Distant Sun”
I have never actually seen Neil Finn live, which is weird as I’ve been a fan for years and I live in the same country. I have seem Tim though.
Distant Sun is my favourite too, just edging out Don’t Dream It’s Over. The version of Hole In The River from the bonus disc of Recurring Dream is up there too.
I see where CH will be touring next year–well I guess if things get back to normal.
Other New Zealand acts have been able to do NZ tours, but Crowded House is multinational. I think Mitchell Froom is a member now.
I know there have been line-up changes-aren’t Neil’s boys with them now too?
Yup – i think the lineup is three Finns, Seymour, and Froom.
Loved this. I have started collecting their stuff on vinyl. I have 2 down so far. Long way to go.
They might be the first band we both make a worst to best for.
Maybe some day!
I’ve heard the debut obviously and Temple of Low Men. I need to check more…Neil knows pop melodies. I would like to hear Woodface with him and his brother.
Woodface has the most iconic Finn songs on it I reckon – it’s just a bit long.
You always send me on a CH tour.
It is my patriotic duty.
I think I will always have a soft spot for Woodface.
Has a lot of great tracks, just the second half drags a bit.