Breaking up Split Enz, 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. Crowded House 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 Crowded House 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 deceased Hester.
Crowded House follow a mainstream guitar pop/rock template, and Neil Finn has openly acknowledged his love for other 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 Finn Brothers solo and duo material on a seperate page.
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’.
Crowded House is a good first up album, but it’s a shame that it’s defined the band in America, as they became more interesting as they developed.
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.
Temple of Low Men is a more mature, nuanced work from Crowded House, but it failed to make an impact in America – fortunately their next album would launch them as a major act in the United Kingdom.
Woodface is a combination 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 is disjointed, even though producer 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?’
There’s too much filler on Woodface – it would have been a terrific 10 track album – but it contains some of the band’s best loved songs.
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.
The near perfect Together Alone is easily the most stunning project that Neil Finn has been involved in.
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. 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 the 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.
Like Time on Earth, Intriguer doesn’t feel much like a Crowded House album. It features the same core lineup – Matt Sherrod along with Finn, Seymour, and Hart – but it’s full of guests. Collaborators include Lisa Germano and Jon Brion, as well as New Zealand luminaries like The Mutton Birds’ Don McGlashan and Lawrence of Arabia. Sharon Finn is the most prominent guest, on backing vocals. Even though it doesn’t feel like Crowded House, Intriguer is a clear rebound from a couple of sleepy Finn albums like Everyone Is Here and Time on Earth.
Intriguer is more energetic and guitar-oriented than any other Neil Finn project from this century. There’s a tiny hint of progressive rock on songs like ‘Archer’s Arrows’, with Germano on violin – not since Split Enz’s Time and Tide in 1982 has Finn sounded arty. Nothing on Intriguer feels as effortlessly tuneful as Crowded House’s best songs, but Finn produces memorable choruses on songs like ‘Amsterdam’, ‘Twice If You’re Lucky’, and ‘Saturday Sun’. Mellow songs like ‘Elephants’ and ‘Isolation’ are also pretty.
It doesn’t feel like Crowded House, but Intriguer is one of Neil Finn’s best records of the 21st century.
Ten Best 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
Back to New Zealand album reviews…