Since the album’s original release in 1991, the long and twisted road that led to Woodface – Crowded House’s third studio album and arguably the point at which all future Finn Brothers joint efforts took root – has become much more illuminated. From a lengthy stretch of “nice, but we don’t hear a single” conversations with studio heads, to the temporary firing of founding bassist Nick Seymour, to the equally temporary hiring of Neil Finn’s older brother Tim, there’s enough story behind this album alone to power a couple of episodes of VH-1’s Behind The Music, if indeed that show was still being made.
As revealed in Chris Bourke’s warts-and-all band biography Something So Strong (1997), frustrations during the songwriting and recording process led Neil Finn to feel that Seymour wasn’t sparking joy creatively, so the bassist was shown to the door and replacements were auditioned, all of which finally convinced Finn that his angst had been mislaid at Seymour’s feet, opening the door for the band to snap back to its original lineup. The songs recorded without Seymour were put on the shelf; they’d wind up in the live setlist, sure, but the recordings went unheard by the vast majority of us. A few of them surfaced on the post-breakup compilation Afterglow, but the others were a mystery until now, unless you’d happened to hear them in concert. Between the tracks that made it to Afterglow and the bonus disc here, it’s now possible to piece together the original, Tim-less version of Woodface if you’re so inclined.
Spoiler: Tim-free Woodface really wouldn’t have been a bad album. Many of Neil Finn’s rejects are superior to some acts’ number one singles. “My Legs Are Gone” and “The Fields Are Full Of Your Kind” may not be classics on the same level as “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, but they’re worthy additions to the Crowdies’ catalogue, and they’re both incredibly catchy. Another memorable tune that was waiting in the wings is the surprisingly well-developed demo “I May Be Late”, whose harmonies might make you think that it’s a leftover from the Finn brothers’ songwriting sessions, but it was a song written solely by Neil, who apparently deemed it unworthy. Tim-free Woodface would’ve been a very guitar-oriented album that might have needed to lean a bit less on the very “produced” sound that emerged.
Also in the “surprisingly well-developed demo” category are early versions of “She Goes On” and “As Sure As I Am”, both of which seem like they’re a mere stone’s throw from the final studio versions, the latter exhibiting some significant lyric changes. The same can be said for “You Got Me Going”, an early version of “Sacred Cow”, one of the Woodface rejects that wound up on Afterglow. “Be My Guest” and “Burnt Out Tree” are home demos from that period when Neil was trying to write the entire album himself, and while they seem like they each have the germ of something interesting, they evidently ran out of time. A real surprise among the pre-Tim material is “Creek Song / Left Hand”, a fully polished studio version of a known song with a very different lyrical/verse structure, with the “Left Hand” portion being the only recognizable part. “Left Hand” is also part of the Afterglow tracklist, though I think I like the tune of this version better, but not necessarily the lyrics. But perhaps the most unfathomable, glad-they-left-that-on-the-cutting-room-floor specimen is an early rehearsal recording of “Fall At Your Feet”, which combined the verses of “You Got Me Going”/”Sacred Cow” with the chorus of “Fall At Your Feet”. This is what demos are for: to find out what is and isn’t working. (This combination wasn’t working.)
Paul Hester’s home demo of “Italian Plastic” is a particularly fascinating listen, as that’s one of the songs that ended up being “very produced” in its final form on Woodface, and since Hester’s no longer with us to offer any hints on what his original intentions were, this demo is the only clue we have.
Much of the rest of the bonus material was recorded circa 1989 by Neil and Tim Finn, with Hester on drums, as home demos for the Finn Brothers album that was eventually subsumed into Woodface. These are equally fascinating, with “Weather With You”, “There Goes God”, “Four Seasons In One Day”, “All I Ask”, and “How Will You Go” shining as the best examples of these. Also interesting are songs such as “It’s Only Natural” and “Chocolate Cake”, which are far less polished musically and lyrically than the aforementioned tunes, and yet the core of each song didn’t change that much between Neil’s home studio and the final studio recording, which may be why those two songs wound up with the level of production that they did: to disguise those very deficiencies. “Catherine Wheel” is here in demo form, though it would have to wait until Together Alone to make its appearance, and I think the demo makes a strong case for the argument that this song was much better with Youth’s production than it would’ve been with Mitchell Froom’s, especially as Woodface was, in a few places, lumbered with the most gimmicky production of any of the original lineup’s albums. The bonus disc is rounded out with a seven-minute live medley and the full version of “I’m Still Here”, a not-safe-for-work jam from which only an excerpt was heard in the fade-out of the original Woodface.
It’s tempting, and also dangerous, to try to read anything into the bonus disc material (indeed, I’m sure one of Neil’s favorite hobbies is listening to people try to psychoanalyze him on the basis of Bourke’s tell-all book). But I think that a lot of the creative sturm und drang early in Woodface‘s development was down to frustration over what seemed to be the commercial failure of its immediate predecessor, Temple Of Low Men, and a lot of label pressure to just obediently crank out “Don’t Dream It’s Over II: Froom Hammond Organ Solo Boogaloo”. Listening to the original Woodface tracklist, as revealed on both this expanded reissue and Afterglow, I hear an album that would’ve been fine. Perhaps not on a level with Temple Of Low Men or the debut album, but not a stinker. And listening back to some of the more gimmicky production poured into the final mix of Woodface from a distance of 28 years, what I really find myself thinking is: maybe what the world – and Crowded House – really needed was Woodface a la Youth. I find myself taking issue not with the songs, but with the production.
Disc 1 – original album:
- Chocolate Cake (4:02)
- It’s Only Natural (3:32)
- Fall at Your Feet (3:18)
- Tall Trees (2:19)
- Weather with You (3:44)
- Whispers and Moans (3:39)
- Four Seasons in One Day (2:50)
- There Goes God (3:50)
- Fame Is (2:23)
- All I Ask (3:55)
- As Sure as I Am (2:53)
- Italian Plastic (3:39)
- She Goes On (3:15)
- How Will You Go (4:14)
Disc 2 – bonus tracks:
- Burnt Out Tree (Home Demo) (1:36)
- I May Be Late (Home Demo) (3:06)
- She Goes On (Home Demo) (3:13)
- As Sure As I Am (Home Demo) (2:37)
- My Legs Are Gone (Studio Demo) (4:33)
- You Got Me Going (Home Demo) (3:23)
- Italian Plastic (Home Demo) (2:54)
- Be My Guest (Home Demo) (2:03)
- Weather With You (Home Demo) (3:08)
- Chocolate Cake (Home Demo) (3:50)
- How Will You Go (Home Demo) (2:46)
- It’s Only Natural (Home Demo) (3:21)
- Four Seasons In One Day (Home Demo) (2:42)
- There Goes God (Home Demo) (2:43)
- Catherine Wheel (Home Demo) (3:00)
- All I Ask (Home Demo) (2:43)
- Fields Are Full Of Your Kind (3:29)
- Creek Song / Left Hand (3:04)
- Fall At Your Feet (Rehearsal Early Version) (3:22)
- The Burglar’s Song (Medley) – Around The UK In 7 Minutes (Live) (7:21)
- I’m Still Here (Full Version) (2:19)
Released by: Capitol Records
Release date: 2016
Disc one total running time: 48:06
Disc two total running time: 1:07:03