Coincidentally this week, I review two 7th studio albums by New Zealand bands starting with C. As well as Porter Robinson’s electro-pop album Nurture.
Dreamers Are Waiting
It’s increasingly difficult to differentiate Crowded House from Neil Finn’s other work. On their seventh album, founding bassist Nick Seymour is the only returning player from their previous album. Instead, the band’s augmented by familiar faces – Mitchell Froom produced Crowded House’s first three albums and played the memorable organ solo on ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Neil Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy join on guitar and drums. The new lineup of Crowded House is strong musically.; the harmonies are their strongest since Tim Finn was in the band for Woodface, and the sophisticated rhythms and keyboards bring out a different aspect of Finn’s writing.
Crowded House have made three albums since their reformation in 2006. None of them recaptures the magic of their initial tenure with drummer Paul Hester, but they’re all worthy. Dreamers Are Waiting is a pensive, folk-inflected album that sometimes recalls 2007’s mournful Time on Earth. So while this lineup of Crowded House feels more comfortable than any other post-Paul Hester, Finn’s songs are serviceable but not sparkling. At this point in his career, Finn’s an artisan, more comfortable writing for the sake of his craft than for the sake of hits.
Dreamers Are Waiting opens with the folky waltz of ‘Bad Times Good’, while there’s a hint of Bacharach about the arrangement of ‘Playing With Fire’. The more upbeat material like ‘Sweet Tooth’ and ‘Whatever You Want’ recalls Jeff Tweedy from the Wilco (The Album) era. The warmth of ‘Real Life Woman’ comes closest to the 1980s and 1990s Crowded House sound.
Dreamers Are Waiting is tasteful and accomplished. Still, Neil Finn has made a lot of albums and if you’re new I’d start somewhere else.
Everyone in New Zealand of a certain age knows a handful of Crowded House songs – ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, ‘Weather With You’, and ‘Better Be Home Soon are standards’. On the other hand, Martin Phillipps’ The Chills are a niche band. The Chills started on the legendary Flying Nun indie label during the 1980s.
The Chills wrote and played songs that needed a great deal of attention in the studio and the consequent expense meant that had no real choice than to have a crack at commercial mainstream success. They were an intelligent pop band.Roger Shepherd (founder of Flying Nun), In Love With These Times
The Chills scored the occasional chart success like 1989’s ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, but even in New Zealand they enjoy a cult following rather than mainstream recognition.
Surprisingly, while The Chills have been around since 1980, Scatterbrain is only their seventh studio album. Struggling with depression, addiction, and Hepatitis C, Phillipps didn’t release a studio album between 1996’s Sunburnt and 2015’s Silver Bullets. Phillipps is often contemplating his own mortality, on songs like ‘Destiny’. Scatterbrain was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, although the recording process was paused when everyone returned to their homes for lockdown. Nonetheless, ‘Safe and Sound’ sounds like a pandemic anthem – “we’ll stay at home/safe and sound”.
Now in his late 50s, age has made Phillipps more eccentric (‘Monolith’) and more sentimental (‘Caught in my Eye’). But he’s lost little of his melodic zing – songs like ‘Little Alien’ and ‘The Walls Beyond Abandon’ are earworms, power pop with memorable hooks. Scatterbrain is a tight 31-minute record with ten tuneful songs that never outstay their welcome. Phillipps’ is playful on ‘Little Alien’, with rhymes like “Cicadian”, “Arcadian”, and “Subterrenean”, while the combination of keyboard hooks and power-pop drive on ‘The Walls Beyond Abandon’ is irresistible.
Phillipps is enjoying an excellent second stanza of his career, and his recent work is worth exploring.
Porter Robinson’s sophomore album has taken a while to emerge. The North Carolina artist started his career making EDM, but changed direction to alternative synth-pop. Porter’s work on Nurture often recalls the electro-pop of The 1975, on songs like ‘Trying To Feel Alive’ and ‘Get Your Wish’. He’s more inclined to process his vocals – he often switches up his voice an octave on Nurture, giving it a feminine quality. Despite the synthetic textures, it’s often a vulnerable record with Robinson expressing vulnerability.
Robinson’s attempts at variety are appreciated, like the glitchy ‘Dullscythe’ and the acoustic folk of ‘Blossom’, where the feminised vocals are in full effect. But Nurture is a record that I cherry-pick for highlights than listen to the whole thing – the best moments are the high energy yet vulnerable pop songs. ‘Look At The Sky’ is stuffed with synth hooks and an uplifting chorus, while ‘Something Comforting’ is a great example of Robinson’s ability to blend introspection and propulsion.
The best songs on Nurture are very strong, and hopefully Robinson’s next album doesn’t take seven years to emerge.