Crowded House, the group New Zealand songwriter/singer/guitarist Neil Finn formed (with bassist Nick Seymour, who happens to be the brother of Hunters and Collectors leader Mark Seymour) after Split Enz, followed the trend toward simplification of that band’s later albums. Despite occasional keyboards (on disc by Finn and producer Mitchell Froom and onstage by ex-Enzman Eddie Rayner, who co-wrote one of the first LP’s songs), the trio’s sound is a bit thin. Yet the melodious mix of tunes about dreams and nightmares, aching for love and the aching love causes, does, given time, prove enjoyable and affecting; for its modest first impressions, Crowded House gradually developed into a substantial commercial success. (The World Where You Live EP is four album tracks plus a non-LP bonus.)
On Temple of Low Men, Froom’s growing rapport with the group (and greater ability to integrate his keyboards) yields fuller, more varied musical textures. Ironically, some melodies seem unfinished, or maybe deliberately oblique. So while the album sounds much better, the quality of the best material here still doesn’t match the debut’s standouts. Finn’s painful or ugly stream-of-consciousness fragments contribute to the overall loss-of-innocence feel: “I Feel Possessed” leads off, followed by “Kill Eye” (late-period Beatles from hell) and “Into Temptation” — you get the idea. A pretty dark album from such a seemingly light band. One gem, “Never Stay the Same,” however, scintillates with possibilities both good and ill. Richard Thompson adds a guitar solo to “Sister Madly.”
Rather than just release “I Feel Possessed” as a CD single, Capitol added three Byrds classics faithfully reproduced onstage by Byrdhouse (the band backing Roger McGuinn, get it?). Nice, but for fans only.
Neil’s older brother Tim had carved out an identity distinct from Split Enz with a solo album, Escapade, in 1983. On his own, he’s milder, sweeter and more conventional (though still worth the time). The precedent for Escapade can be found in the romantic grandeur of Split Enz’s True Colours‘ “I Hope I Never.” One track here, the moving “Not for Nothing,” is a bona fide lump-in-the-throat masterpiece.
The meager sales of Escapade were evidently a major setback to Finn’s solo career. Released in Europe in ’86, Big Canoe only came out in the US after brother Neil went big-time with Crowded House — and then as a budget LP. Anyway, it’s a middling effort, with overproduction and mega-arrangements (a classic Split Enz weakness) dulling the emotional edge of Finn’s bittersweet crooning. He’s still boss on “Don’t Bury My Heart,” a haunting ballad, and the lightheaded rocker “Water Into Wine.”
No doubt eager to emulate the success of Crowded House, Tim teamed up with the same label and producer (Mitchell Froom). Despite the overly slick presentation, Tim Finn sometimes hits the mark, especially on the rowdy “Birds Swim Fish Fly” and “Not Even Close,” which turns self-pity into affecting melodrama. What Finn really needs here, though, is an editor/producer willing to pare these smart songs down to essentials, not one who will continue to encourage his weakness for excessive ornamentation.
In late ’90, Tim (vocals, songs, spot of keyboards) joined Crowded House and the quartet began working on its third album. Woodface integrates the new arrival as though he were always meant to be a part of the band. Co-writing most of the best songs with Neil, Tim helped focus the pain into poignancy (“Tall Trees”) and even occasionally lifted the mood to snidely beguiling black humor (“Chocolate Cake,” “There Goes God”) or even (gulp) enchantment (“Everywhere you go you always take the weather with you”). Froom co-produced with Neil, blithely blending in such contributors as Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on accordion and ex-Beach Boy Ricky Fataar sitting in for drummer Paul Hester on three tracks. (Nice cover painting by bassist Nick Seymour, who painted the first two as well.)
Tim came to feel redundant as an onstage bandmember and took an amicable powder. With a change of producer (Youth, the Killing Joke veteran who has branched into many other genres as a producer), the remaining trio came up with the ingratiating Together Alone. It’s fairly Beatles-influenced, both obviously (like the “Taxman”-style verses of “In My Command,” the “Norwegian Wood” tone of “Pineapple Head,” the out-and-out Lennonesque rocker “Locked Out”) and less overtly, in the whimsical and ambitiously “produced” feel. There’s also a decidedly New Zealandish spin from the get-go: “Kare Kare,” named for the beach locale of the recording studio, opens the album declaring “I stood on top of the wave/And then I made the drop.” The title track incorporates a Maori choir; “Private Universe” features Micronesian log drummers. Together Alone isn’t outright happy, but it’s definitely Crowded House’s brightest album.
Tim, meanwhile, cut his most consistent solo album to date — despite the number of producers (David Leonard, Ricky Fataar, Langer/Winstanley) and songwriting collaborators involved. Neil co-wrote two songs (leftovers from Woodface), Richard Thompson contributed to the modest but resonant “Protected” and Hothouse Flowers’ Liam Ó Maonlai took part as well. To be sure, Escapade, Big Canoe and Tim Finn all have their moments, but just one or two per disc (usually a juicy ballad). Before & After, however, is balanced and mature in a positive way. Finn took a 10-day silent retreat before making the album, and embodies his spiritual aspect in the closing “I Found It,” which keeps tongue firmly in cheek and never identifies what “it” actually is. The album opens with the mid-tempo “Hit the Ground Running,” which sets the tone with a disarming, seemingly effortless soul-lite style to convey the story of a friend-of-a-friend’s fight against AIDS and succeeds by understatement rather than the arrangement overkill resorted to on previous solo outings. Other highlights: the Dave Edmunds-like “Funny Way” and the wistful soul-pop of “Always Never Now.” “In Love With It All” and “Strangeness and Charm,” the pair of songs Neil co-wrote, were cut in Dublin with backing by Hothouse Flowers; during those sessions, a pub-crawling incident induced Tim, Ó Maonlai and his singer/songwriter buddy Andy White to whip up “Many’s the Time,” a catchy observation on celebrity.
That one-off proved such a satisfying collaboration that it developed into a trio, ALT (Andy, Liam, Tim). Ó Maonlai and White camped out at Tim’s New Zealand home studio long enough to write and record Altitude, playing everything but drums. An invitation to massive self-gratification? Sure, but that’s not to say the album is without appeal. The first few tracks are charming, with a coherent if playful ambience, but the enthusiasm peters out as the album runs its course.
Meanwhile, in Auckland sessions in late ’94 and early ’95, Tim and Neil reunited as Finn (aka the Finn Brothers), writing together, playing all but one bass part and producing Finn (released in the US as Finn Brothers) with Tchad Blake. Sounding like it was as much fun to make as Altitude, this album is miles more entertaining for the listener. Beatlisms abound, in Neil’s vocals, in the McCartneyesque feel of his “Last Day of June” and the “I Dig a Pony” vibe of the pseudo-live “Kiss the Road to Raratonga” and in such specific allusions as the simulated musique concrète coda of “Eyes of the World” and the “Helter Skelter”-like descending riff late in “Suffer Never.” It’s all done with an irresistibly frolicsome spirit, and none of the songs actually depend on purloined Merseysounds. The album is leavened by the poignant “Only Talking Sense” and “Where Is My Soul,” the endearingly sweet “Angels Heap,” the groove-rocking “Niwhai” and the goofy noir of “Bullets in My Hairdo.” If this isn’t quite a masterwork, it’s still the most consistently enjoyable thing either brother has done in ages. And the booklet has a great photo of the two playing guitar that dates back to before Neil could shave.
Together Alone would prove to be Crowded House’s last album of new material, as Neil Finn began a solo career while continuing to collaborate, off-and-on, with his brother. With farewell concerts in Sydney, Auckland and elsewhere, the band bid adieu to its antipodean fans. (The shows were later assembled and released in 2006 as Farewell to the World, a double-CD). Recurring Dream summarizes the Crowded House oeuvre in a splendid 19-track single disc version offering two new songs, the relatively slight “Everything Is Good for You” and the minor-key “Not the Girl You Think You Are.” The album also exists as a double disc containing a 15-song live set that showcases the band’s on-stage rapport. Released three years later, After Glow offers 13 superlative outtakes, B-sides and soundtrack contributions, including the excellent “Recurring Dream” (the title track of the best-of, on which it does not appear) and the ringing “Anyone Can Tell,” from the earliest days of Crowded House. “Time Immemorial” and the surging “I Am in Love” are added highlights. Neil Finn wrote all the songs here but the goofy Paul Hester contribution “My Telly’s Gone Bung.”
Neil Finn finally began a solo career with the teasingly titled Try Whistling This in 1998. Marius DeVries (Björk) produced with Finn, using a host of sound effects and computerized loops to enliven the classic pop sound without overpowering it. Finn has a diverse list of old and new friends on hand, folks like Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing), Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom, but not a single Enz or Crowded House bandmate. As he did on Temple of Low Men, Neil expends much of his lyrical energy on Catholic themes of transgression and repentance, notably on the trip-hop-influenced single “Sinner,” whose chorus is “The closest I get to contentment / Is when all of the barriers come down.” Midnight Oil’s Jim Moginie co-authored three tracks, including the misleadingly gentle title song, on which Finn vows, “If the gods desert us now I’ll turn this chapel into flames / And if someone tries to hurt you I would put myself in your place.” Despite the lyrical preoccupations, not every song is so portentous: “She Will Have Her Way” and “Faster Than Light” are effervescent pop.
The subsequent Neil Finn album, confusingly released as One Nil worldwide and One All in the soccer-impaired (and evidently more equipoise) States, fails to match Try Whistling This. Still, many of the songs are fine; some are even brilliant, like the simmering “Driving Me Mad” and the touching “Wherever You Are.” Moginie, Lisa Germano and Wendy & Lisa (and Sheryl Crow, on accordion) chip in helpfully, but there’s a frustrating degree of repetition and too many of the tunes are set to a mild tempo, and could have used a driving rhythm section like Hester – Seymour. The gloomy “Anytime” and defiant “Turn and Run,” which don’t really stand out here, turn out to be show-stoppers when performed with a band in Finn’s subsequent live album, Seven Worlds Collide: Live at the St. James.
As Neil pursued his solo career, the elder Finn released Say It Is So in 2000 and Feeding the Gods in 2001. Recorded in Nashville, Say It Is So is the better of the two, subdued, graceful and mature, full of reflections on companionships, relationships and, well, ships. The language of the sea has never washed from his songbook, not since the days of “Six Months in a Leaky Boat.” Here we have “Underwater Mountain,” “Currents” and “Big Wave Rider.” The millennium-haunted “Death of a Popular Song,” with harmony singing by alt-country star Julie Miller, is the highlight, wedged (in both sound and imagery) somewhere between the Church’s “Under the Milky Way,” Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now.” Recorded in New Zealand, Feeding the Gods is louder and not particularly memorable; the highlight, regrettably, is a reprise of the ALT track “What You’ve Done.” That said, “Songline,” “Subway Dreaming” and “Say It Is So” (a Tim/Andy White collaboration) are all pretty good.
Tim toured his homeland in 2000-’01 with fellow Kiwis Dave Dobbyn (formerly of the group DD Smash) and the Chinese-Maori songwriter Bic Runga, releasing Together in Concert as a souvenir.
Tim and Neil are reunited on the excellent Neil Finn live album, Seven Worlds Collide, in 2002, and then regrouped two years later for another Finn Brothers album, Everyone Is Here. The live album, recorded before a rapturous audience in Auckland, has a sterling lineup of musicians, from Tim Finn, Lisa Germano and Sebastian Steinberg to Johnny Marr and Eddie Vedder, a surfing buddy of the Finns. The set list romps through favorites from the Split Enz era (“I See Red,” screamed by Vedder), the Crowded House years (“Weather With You”, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”), the Finn Brothers (“Angels Heap,” “Paradise (Wherever You Are)”) and solo material. There’s also a remarkable Finn-sung cover of the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” A genuinely surprising and entertaining collaboration. (Continuing a perplexing Finn habit, the phrase “seven worlds collide” is from Together Alone’s “Dust From a Distant Sun,” a song not on the live album.)
The Finn Brothers’ Everyone Is Here is another career highlight, amplifying their strengths — spectacular, effortless harmonies, impeccable songcraft and a genuine and unforced sense of sincere family values — while mitigating their weaknesses. Made shortly after the death of their mother, the album is thematically about family unity. “Won’t Give In” inquires rhetorically, “What does it mean when you belong to someone? / When you’re born with a name and you carry it on?” The answer, of course, is the title of this stunning pop song. The album sticks to that high standard, with the Tim highlight “Edible Flowers,” the spirited “Anything Can Happen” and “Disembodied Voices,” which recalls late-night childhood conversations. At this stage in their lives and their careers, both Tim and Neil are mature personalities and songwriters, but the most compelling aspect of Everyone Is Here is that the brothers have literally made their partnership their lives’ work.
In a sad postscript to the Crowded House story, Paul Hester took his own life in Australia in March 2005. The shock spurred Neil Finn to reconvene Crowded House for tribute concerts to his friend and former bandmate and ultimately reassemble the band as an active concern. The 2007 edition of Crowded House still features Neil at the core, but he reconnects with Nick Seymour and Mark Hart to make this a genuine reunion, with Matt Sherrod joining on drums. The cover art, of a dragon devouring a man in the midst of a cityscape of newsprint, doesn’t bode well for a bright pop album. With Finn’s populist melodic instincts leavened by a pervasive and fully reasonable sense of loss, Time on Earth is good but samey; the album doesn’t have many peaks or lows, to its detriment, although the moving “Don’t Stop Now” does rock out a bit. The songwriting collaborations (with the Dixie Chicks on “Silent House,” which is not about Hester, and with Marr on “Even a Child”) don’t have an audible impact on the overall tone of somber reflection.
Tim wasn’t quiet in the middle 2000s either, releasing Imaginary Kingdom, his best album since Before & After. From the inspired (Miyazaki-like?) cover art through the songwriting, this is one of the elder Finn’s best solo records. Opener “Couldn’t Be Done” is a slyly tongue-in-cheek tribute to some of his lighter pop songs, specifically echoing “Fraction Too Much Friction,” but with a far more mature lyrical sensitivity. “Winter Light” (from the soundtrack to The Chronicles of Narnia) is one of his better ballads. Finn themes recur throughout: family obligations and duty, marine and seagoing metaphors and the nourishing power of music. It’s a solid and (for a change!) well-edited collection of mature pop songs, from a performer who’s always struggled to escape his younger brother’s formidable shadow.