Breaking up Split Enz after feeling too much pressure to fill his older brother’s shoes, Neil Finn retained drummer Paul Hester from the final Enz lineup and created a more streamlined band. They recruited Australian bass player Nick Seymour (brother of Hunters and Collector’s lead singer Mark), and secured an American record deal.
They found immediate success, with the single ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ from their 1986 debut album reaching number two on the American charts. While they didn’t maintain that level of success in America, their third album Woodface, which included Tim Finn as a band member, established them as a popular band in the UK. The group split after their fourth album, 1993’s almost perfect Together Alone, but reunited for 2007’s Time on Earth, a tribute to the late Hester.
Crowded House follow a mainstream guitar pop/rock template, and Neil Finn has openly acknowledged his love for other pop craftsmen like The Beatles and Elton John. Coupled with Neil Finn’s settled personal life, reflected in his songs, there have always been criticisms of the group being a safe, “dad-rock” band. While there’s certainly some truth in this, I don’t listen to Crowded House for experimentation and boundary pushing, and the main draw-card has always been Neil Finn’s expertly crafted songs. If you’re a sceptic, at least give Together Alone a chance – Youth’s unorthodox production techniques and the wild New Zealand landscape bring the best out of the band, and parts of the record are rawer and more beautiful than anything else in their catalogue.
While Neil Finn was the creative lynch-pin, writing the large majority of the material, drummer Paul Hester was the soul of Crowded House. His unpredictable antics enlivened the band’s concerts, and they were a more fun live band than their formal studio records would indicate. Neil Finn went on record as saying: “Paul’s got limitations technically sometimes, but ….. he played my songs very well. He plays a shuffle in the same way I play the guitar. There was a certain chemistry in the band.”
I’ve covered the Split Enz catalogue separately, but I have covered a bunch of Tim and Neil Finn’s solo albums on this page. I’ve only covered a couple of Tim’s solo albums, but I’ve covered most of Neil’s solo projects excluding his collaborative Seven Worlds Collide releases. I haven’t been particularly impressed by the Finn’s work in the first decade of the 21st century, but some of Neil’s work in the 2010s has been very enjoyable. 1995’s Finn is my favourite of the albums that the Finn brothers have been involved with outside of Split Enz and Crowded House, and it’s well worth hearing.
Crowded House Album Reviews
After breaking up Split Enz, Neil Finn retained drummer Paul Hester and recruited bassist Nick Seymour, creating Crowded House. Producer Mitchell Froom is just about an unofficial fourth member here, contributing keyboards as well as his production style which often emphasises organic instruments. Crowded House scored their biggest hit in America with their debut, reaching number 2 on the US singles charts, but despite the presence of the timeless ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, it’s the least interesting of their initial run of albums.
Crowded House is a little generic in places, and the songs are less nuanced and interesting then Finn’s later work. The horn sections in ‘Mean to Me’ and ‘That’s What I Call Love’ haven’t aged well, while ‘Hole in the River’ would benefit from a more organic arrangement, although it’s haunting even with a synthesizer dominated arrangement. The best song is the best known; ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ utilises a Maori strum on Finn’s guitar, and Froom’s organ solo. ‘World Where You Live’ is an excellent hooky pop song, and there are also enjoyable pop songs like ‘Can’t Carry On’ and ‘Now We’re Getting Somewhere’.
Temple of Low Men
Crowded House’s second album is a significant step forward from their first, even though it failed to match the impact of its predecessor. It’s a little darker and more unified in tone. Unfortunately it didn’t have a great single like ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ – first single ‘Better Be Home Soon’ is a very good composition, but it’s not immediate enough to be a hit song. That’s representative of the album as a whole – Temple of Low Men doesn’t have as many pop hooks, but it’s more mature and cohesive than Crowded House’s debut.
The standout track on Temple of Low Men is the beautiful ‘Into Temptation’, with a soaring bridge, inspired by Neil’s Catholic childhood, while the brooding, simmering ‘When You Come’ is another highlight. There are plenty of low key and melodic pieces like ‘Better Be Home Soon’, ‘I Feel Possessed’ and ‘Never Be The Same’; these are balanced by the more uptempo ‘Kill Eye’, ‘Sister Madly’, the latter featuring guitar solos from label-mate Richard Thompson.
Woodface is the result of two separate recording projects; an attempt at a third Crowded House album, and Neil Finn’s collaboration with his older brother Tim. The sessions for the Crowded House album were not particularly fruitful, and the Finn’s album was only half completed, so Neil decided that the best solution would be to combine the two. Not surprisingly Woodface comes out disjointed, even though Mitchell Froom worked on both projects. Woodface contains some of Crowded House’s best work, but like a lot of albums from the early CD era, it’s overlong and it drags in places.
Highlights include the signature singles ‘Weather With You’ and ‘Four Seasons in One Day’, both with plenty of meteorological references and Finn brothers harmonies, but ‘Fall At Your Feet’, a solo Neil effort, might be the best song with its harmony laden chorus. The opener ‘Chocolate Cake’ is awkward, and effectively killed their American career with the line “the excess of fat on your American bones”, while ‘There Goes God’ is also controversial, but stronger musically. The second half is less convincing – you could remove the four tracks from ‘Fame Is’ to Hester’s ‘Italian Plastic’ without losing much, although Tim’s vocal on torch song ‘All I Ask’ is gorgeous. But the album ends strongly with hidden treasure ‘She Goes On’ and ‘How Will You Go?’
Crowded House’s final studio album before their initial breakup was recorded in a lonely beach studio in the north of New Zealand. The band chose to use another producer rather than Froom to explore new sounds, and Youth (better known for his work in dance music) bought more spontaneity to the recording process with techniques such as asking the guitarists to play in a stone circle 200 metres away from the studio, or making the group run around naked before recording to lose their inhibitions. Previous Crowded House albums could be accused of being too mainstream and mannered; Together Alone tears down such boundaries and captures them more raw and emotional than ever before.
With the addition of second guitarist Mark Hart, rockers such as ‘Black and White Boy’ and ‘Locked Out’ are far more intense than their counterparts on previous albums, while ‘Private Universe’ and ‘Nails in My Feet’ are their most beautiful songs. The Polynesian percussion in ‘Private Universe’ and the Maori choir in the title track give the album a distinct Pacific flavour. Many fans, along with Neil Finn himself, would nominate the surreal ‘Private Universe’ as their favourite Crowded House recording. Other particularly poignant tracks include the single ‘Distant Sun’ (“I don’t pretend to know what you want/But I offer love.”), ‘Nails in My Feet’ and the gentle ‘Fingers of Love’. The group composed ‘Kare Kare’ sets the scene with an evocative description and musical representation of the landscape, while the epic ‘Catherine Wheels’ (with a Tim co-write and backing vocal) is another moody piece at a much slower tempo.
Recurring Dream: The Very Best Of
1996, not rated
The band’s first four albums, particularly 1993’s fantastic Together Alone, are worth hearing individually, making this compilation superfluous. There are three new songs, although only the rhythmic ‘Instinct’ is comparable with their best work.
More helpfully, some editions also came with a great bonus disc of live tracks collated by Split Enz bassist Nigel Griggs. In particular, the epic ten minute ‘Hole In The River’ blows away its studio counterpart – and dedicated fans would be well advised to track down this version.
Afterglow is a collection of Crowded House’s outtakes and b-sides. There’s an alternate version of ‘Private Universe’ from Together Alone, and ‘Left Hand’ turned up on the live disc from Recurring Dream, but the rest of these songs are appearing for the first time on a long player. Afterglow doesn’t collect every single Crowded House leftover – it’s the best of the leftovers, arranged to make a self-contained forty five minute album that stands alongside their original albums. There aren’t any major classics hiding here, but the more relaxed atmosphere helps to bring out a less starched version of the band, which does a lot to compensate.
The simmering, majestic ‘I Am In Love’ would be a standout track on any of their albums, while the guitar arpeggios of ‘Recurring Dream’, one of the band’s earliest songs with original guitarist Craig Hooper still in the band, would have made for one of the best songs on the debut. The word play of ‘I Love You Dawn’, which alternates between referring to dawn and Finn’s wife, whose middle name is conveniently Dawn, is also gorgeous, while ‘Time Immemorial’ is a pretty waltz. There’s lightweight material like ‘My Telly’s Gone Bung’, and some of the material ditched from the Woodface sessions to accommodate the Finn brothers material is also unremarkable.
Time on Earth
Original Crowded House drummer Paul Hester took his own life in 2005, the catalyst for the first Crowded House album for fourteen years. Neil Finn is rejoined by Nick Seymour and Mark Hart, while Beck sideman Matt Sherrod replaces Hester as drummer. Time on Earth is an elegant set of songs, largely inspired by Hester’s passing, and it’s a fitting tribute to him. But it also feels like it’s missing the spark that Hester bought to the original group, and at almost an hour it’s much too long and it drags in places.
The best songs are generally the most mournful and beautiful – the piano led ‘Pour La Monde’ is gorgeously infused with harmony vocals, while ‘People Are Like Suns’ is a pretty orchestrated conclusion. ‘Nobody Wants To’ is a strong opener, while ‘Silent House’ scores with memorable pop hooks.
If you’re a fan of Neil Finn’s impeccable song craft and tasteful arrangements you may rate this much higher than I do; Time on Earth is too long and it doesn’t feel enough like Crowded House for me to rank it up with their initial run of studio albums.
2010, not rated
I’m listing this for the sake of completeness, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever cover it.
Ten Favourite Crowded House Songs
Don’t Dream It’s Over
Hole In The River (specifically, the live version from the Recurring Dreams bonus disc)
Fall At Your Feet
Nails In My Feet
Four Seasons in One Day
In My Command
Tim Finn Album Reviews
Tim Finn’s released at least nine solo albums, starting with 1983’s Escapade, most of which I’m not familiar with. The other one that I’d like to cover sometime is 1989’s Tim Finn, with Mitchell Froom producing.
Before & After
Tim Finn uses a variety of instrumentalists and producers on Before & After, his fourth solo album. This approach results in a front-loaded and disjointed album – there are some leftover collaborations with Neil, some dance pop, and some folk – with some great moments. It’s a revelation how gorgeous Tim’s voice is when he sings normally, rather than his hiccoughing persona in Split Enz, crooning his way through the lovely ‘In Your Sway’ and showcasing his falsetto in ‘I Found It’.
Opener ‘Hit The Ground Running’ sounds dated, but the falsetto in the chorus is still gorgeous. ‘In Love With It All’ was inexplicably omitted from Woodface, but is captured here with Ireland’s The Hothouse Flowers, Eddie Rayner and Neil all contributing parts. The single ‘Persuasion’ is a charming acoustic song co-written with Richard Thompson, while ‘Many’s The Time (In Dublin)’ finds Tim exploring his Celtic heritage to wonderful effect. While Before And After isn’t front to back satisfying, it’s well worth hearing the highlights.
Say It Is So
Tim’s first studio album since Before And After, although he had been working on other projects such as the first Finn Brothers album and ALT, a collaboration with members of the Hothouse Flowers, in the meantime. In the intervening seven years, Tim spent enough time out of the spotlight to the point where he largely ceased to be a commercial musical force, and this album was self-released on his own record label. Approaching fifty (it’s easy to remember his birth year, since he announces it in the lyrics of Time and Tide‘s ‘Haul Away’) Finn at this point is getting to the stage where he’s growing old gracefully, rather than attempting another commercial pop record like Before And After. Say It Is So was recorded in Nashville, largely because Tim’s appreciation of alt-country in general, and Wilco in particular; it’s not a coincidence that then Wilco drummer Ken Coomer is one of the sidemen. Julie Miller also lends her beautiful voice to several of the tracks, contrasting with Tim’s more gravelly tones. Tim’s voice, still a gorgeous instrument on his previous solo album, has aged significantly in the intervening seven years. It’s still pleasant, but doesn’t soar like previously, using lower ranges and more roughness.
There are some standout tracks; ‘Twinkle’ marries a gorgeous melody to a smooth modern arrangement, that’s almost akin to trip-hop. The closing ‘Rest’ is gently anthemic, with a hint of Maori influence in the melody, evident even before the Maori lyrics come in, like a less bombastic ‘Together Alone’, featuring some gorgeous guitar tone. ‘Death Of A Popular Song’ is not as exciting as its title implies. Not all of the songs are particularly exciting either, with predictable fare like ‘Need To Be Right’, and mundane songs like ‘Good Together’ and ‘Some Dumb Reason’ (which justifies its uber-conventional lyrics with the lines “It’s hard to keep it off the record when you feel this way”).
Say It Is So is solid enough most of the way through, and it’s perfectly respectable without pandering to popular trends or falling into sentimentality, but it’s hard to imagine anyone outside Tim’s loyal fan base becoming too excited by it.
The Finn Brothers
Tim and Neil Finn joined forces in 1995 to record the low-key Finnalbum. The brothers play the bulk of the instruments, with the only outside musicians Dave Dobbyn, who contributes a meaty bass lines to ‘Kiss The Road of Rarotonga’, and the Avarua Presbyterian Choir who contribute backing vocals to ‘Paradise’. As demonstrated on the collaborative tracks on Woodface, the Finn’s lyrics become more cryptic and less personal when they write together; Neil and Tim’s joint lyrics abound with surreal in-jokes: “Feeling just a little surprised/Like you discovered Engelbert Humperdink or something/Inside the fairy light.
Because most of the instrumental parts are straightforward and low-key, the focus is often directed onto the song writing. Apart from the staid, tuneless ‘Bullets in My Hairdo’, the melodies on Finn are lovely. ‘Last Day of June’ may be the most beautiful song Neil has written, and its low-key arrangement amplifies its fragility. ‘Angels Heap’, a lovely nostalgic ode to a vintage car, spotlights a similarly enchanting melody. When the Finns undertake fuller bodied arrangements on ‘Suffer Never’ and ‘Kiss the Road of Rarotonga’, they also sound fantastic.
Everyone Is Here
The Finn Brothers’ first album as a duo was stripped down, with an off-the-cuff flavour, but Everyone Is Here is the opposite, with a smooth radio friendly sound. Everyone Is Here was originally completed with Tony Visconti as producer, before being scrapped and rerecorded with Mitchell Froom. It’s unfair to complain too much given that the brothers have an established style and it’s a solid showcase of what they do best, but Everyone Is Here is too safe and mannered despite some excellent songs.
This impression isn’t helped by the lyrics, often based around the themes of ageing, which help to take even more of an edge off. It’s the gentlest songs that make the biggest impression; ‘Edible Flowers’, which originally surfaced on Neil’s Seven Worlds Collide live album, uses his vulnerable upper register, ‘Disembodied Voices’ is delicate and pretty, while ‘Gentle Hum’ is an excellent atmospheric piano-driven closer. They’re still able to channel energy successfully into some of the upbeat material like the single ‘Won’t Give In’, ‘Part Of Me, Part Of You’ and ‘Nothing Wrong With You’, which showcase some surprisingly energetic harmonies, which do help to add some character to a record that occasionally teeters towards blandness.
Everyone Is Here is a workmanlike record that will satisfy the Finns’ fan-base without setting the world alight.
Try Whistling This
For his first solo record, Try Whistling This, Neil Finn made an intentional effort to distance himself from Crowded House – the title challengers listeners to find catchy tunes. He dabbles with new textures, and with its programming it’s very much a record of the late 1990s. Collaborators include producer Marius De Vries and Midnight Oil guitarist Jim Moginie. I remember being disappointed with Try Whistling This at the time of release, and it’s underwhelming coming off the heels of the excellent Together Alone and Finn. But at the same time it’s a valiant attempt to stake out some new territory. In hindight, the album’s main issue is simply that it’s too long; the last four songs drag with their languid, spacey arrangements; for its first nine tracks Try Whistling This is much stronger.
The first single ‘She Will Have Her Way’ is confusingly unrepresentative – it’s straight up power pop which could have come from True Colours or Crowded House, without a hint of experimentation. Despite some sonic candy, the gorgeous ‘Sinner’ is essentially a pretty piano ballad, while the rockers like ‘Souvenir’, ‘Twisty Bass’ and ‘Loose Tongue’ benefit from their electronic arrangements.
Try Whistling This is a bold experiment with some great tracks – it just needed some trimming.
After the more experimental Try Whistling This, One Nil reverts to the guitar based approach of Crowded House, even though it’s more personal and subtle. Unexpected support comes from former Prince collaborators Wendy and Lisa, who add a slightly funky edge to songs like ‘Rest Of The Day Off’ and ‘Hole In The Ice’; it’s not as an extreme juxtaposition as it sounds on paper, and these songs dovetail into the rest of the album nicely.
One Nil is consistently full of modest, well crafted efforts like the charming melodic ‘Wherever You Are’ and ‘Last To Know’, with its gentle verse and climactic chorus, There are plenty of accessible and emotional pop tunes like ‘Turn and Run’ and ‘Anytime’, while ‘Into The Sunset’ ends the album on a gorgeous note with its beautiful coda.
There’s hardly anything trail blazing or instantly catchy about this record, but it’s eminently likeable; if you’re already a fan of Finn’s melodic and thoughtful pop, it’s hard to go too far wrong with One Nil. There was also a revised version of the album for the American market titled One All, which supplants a couple of the weaker songs (the awkward rocker ‘Don’t Ask Why’ and the interesting and atmospheric ‘Elastic Heart’) with a couple of new tracks, as well as some re-sequencing and re-mixing.
Pajama Club (by Pajama Club)
After both of their sons left home, Neil Finn and his wife Sharon found themselves with unaccustomed spare time. They started jamming in their music room, with Neil on drums and Sharon on bass, adding Sean Donnelly, who’s recorded enjoyable albums as SJD, on keyboards. The resulting album is markedly different than anything else in Finn’s catalogue- the songs were built from their grooves up, so that the lyrics are largely an afterthought. It’s unusual to hear the studious and mannered Finn singing words like “You’ve got no limit/On your telephone plan.”
The beats set this album apart from Finn’s usual Beatlesque pop. The Finns play funky grooves, inspired by The Bronx’s ESG, and sometimes heading into krautrock motorik territory. The fun beats and SJD’s excellent sonic landscaping are effective on songs like ‘Can’t Put It Down Until It Ends’, ‘These Are Conditions’, and ‘Tell Me What You Want’, with Sharon on lead vocals for the latter. But the tossed off lyrics are distracting at times, and it’s certainly not a major record in Neil Finn’s canon – more of a fun side project.
The different approach of Pajama Club did result in a creative rebirth for Neil Finn, and his ensuing albums have been more adventurous than the predictable music he was making in the first decade of the twenty first century.
Neil Finn’s main collaborator on Dizzy Heights is veteran producer Dave Fridmann, known for his work with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Finn’s always been a song-focused record maker, with straightforward arrangements and productions that emphasise his songs, so the different approach is refreshing. It took me a while to appreciate Dizzy Heights – Fridmann’s psychedelic textures obscure Finn’s songs in a way that isn’t customary. There are pieces like ‘Flying in the Face of Love’ that would work as Crowded House songs, but more atmospheric efforts like ‘Divebomber’ are new territory for Finn.
To Finn’s credit, he succeeds at both approaches – the more traditional Finn fare like ‘Pony Ride’ and the title track are just as enjoyable as the more atmospheric pieces. The falsetto and warlike sound effects of ‘Divebomber’ are perhaps the biggest departure for Finn, but my favourite of the more experimental pieces is the pretty ‘Recluse’. The sparse ‘Lights of New York’, centered around Finn’s piano, anticipates Finn’s next solo project.
The tunes aren’t memorable enough for Dizzy Heights to rank among Finn’s very best work, but the dreamy psychedelia of Dizzy Heights claims new territory for Finn, and it’s generally satisfying.
Out Of Silence
Out Of The Silence continues Finn’s recent practice of re-contextualising his music in order to challenge himself. It was recorded in a single four hour period; Finn broadcast the weekly practices and the final recording session as live streams. Finn has previously show-cased his talents as a pianist on other projects, like Bic Runga’s Birds and his live album with Paul Kelly, but Out Of Silence is an entire album of piano-based chamber pop, with Finn abandoning his usual guitar and backed by a small orchestra.
Finn’s songs have often revolved around relationships, but Out Of Silence often addresses the uneasy state of the world, with Finn especially pointed on the final chorus to ‘The Law Is Always On Your Side’:
Say the law is always on your side
But I don’t believe it anymore
Cause I heard it all before
And it’s plain to see that the power is above the law
The topical lyrics, the piano, and the lack of studio candy is a different set of components than Finn has ever worked with before, and accordingly Out Of Silence is different in feel than anything he’s done before. It’s noticeably concise, with ten songs tightly packed into its 36 minutes.
While there’s a backing choir of New Zealand music luminaries like Don McGlashan and Lawrence Arabia, Out Of Silence is subdued; a rhythm section only features on ‘Chameleon Days’ and ‘Second Nature’, while Tim Finn guests on ‘Alone’. Standout tracks include the gorgeous, string infused opener ‘Love Is Emotional’, the direct austerity of ‘The Law Is Always On Your Side’, and the insistent pulse of ‘Chameleon Days’.
Out Of Silence is the strongest solo album of Neil Finn’s career, finding new contexts for his dependably beautiful melodies.
Back to New Zealand album reviews…