Crowded House – Intriguer

Crowded House - IntriguerThe announcement that Crowded House was getting back together was nothing short of a major surprise, and the first album following that announcement was a strange mix that started life as Neil Finn’s third solo album and really only included a handful of songs actually played by the reconstituted lineup of the band. Single selection was an even more awkward and political thing: strong songs were passed over in favor of those few that included the full lineup. The new album, Intriguer, has no such issues: the pre-publicity points out that the entire album emerged from band jams, and every track features the new lineup of Finn, Nick Seymour, Mark Hart and Matt Sherrod. Oddly enough, though, the result winds up sounding more like a Finn solo album than a Crowded House album, though at this point it’s probably a given that Finn solo is interchangeable with Crowded House at any given point, sort of like Jeff Lynne = ELO these days.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad album, not by a long stretch. And that’s also not to say that the Crowdies’ sound has ever been frozen in amber: the densely atmospheric Together Alone was a culture shock after the first three Mitchell Froom-produced albums. Intriguer is produced by Finn with Wilco producer Jim Scott, and the result winds up being neither as timeless as the Froom years, nor quite as adventurous as Together Alone. As with 2007’s Time On Earth and its lead single, this album is led by a rather unadventurous single, “Saturday Sun” – not a bad song, but not really attention-grabbing musically or stylistically.

Things get much more interesting with the third track, “Amsterdam”, which laments the city’s infamous reputation as a place where morality gets put on hold, in the form of a pleasant if downbeat ballad. The following track, “Either Side Of The World”, is very off-the-beaten-path for Crowded House, resembling – more than anything – “Paradise (Wherever You Are)” from the first Finn Brothers album. It’s got a jaunty tropical beat in which Sherrod really comes into his own at the drums – it’s a song that I can’t imagine Paul Hester playing, at least not this way. It’s odd that my favorite Crowded House songs these days sound nothing like what most people envision (i.e. Froom’s Hammond organ breaks) when they think of Crowded House. “Either Side” is an anthem to monogamy which goes more than skin-deep on the subject – not exactly a frequent topic of modern song lyrics.

“Isolation” seems to have been inspired by the pacing and arrangements of classic 1950s rock ballads, and is the second song to feature vocal contributions from Finn’s wife Sharon. Straight-ahead rocker “Twice If You’re Lucky” is probably the closest Intriguer comes to the early Crowded House sound, and it burrows its way into your subconscious quickly, along with the bittersweet “Even If”. But the experimentation is by no means a bad thing: the glue that holds every song together is Neil Finn’s rock-solid songwriting. (As legend would have it, when asked during an interview 4 out of 4what it’s like to be the greatest songwriter alive, Paul McCartney declined to answer on the grounds that Finn should hold that title. While I haven’t been able to source this oft-quoted interview, I’ll just settle for saying: ’nuff said.) No matter how “exotic” the style becomes, the songs at least have that going for them. “Even If” and “Elephants” deliver a double dose of wistful poignancy to slowly wind things to a close – which just means it’s time to start from the beginning again. Intriguer may take a little time to grow on you, but rest assured, it will.

Order this CD

  1. Saturday Sun (3:26)
  2. Archer’s Arrows (4:04)
  3. Amsterdam (3:34)
  4. Either Side Of The World (4:35)
  5. Falling Dove (4:35)
  6. Isolation (4:37)
  7. Twice If You’re Lucky (3:33)
  8. Inside Out (3:19)
  9. Even If (4:02)
  10. Elephants (4:30)

Released by: Fantasy
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 40:15

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Tim Finn – North, South, East, West…: Anthology

North, South, East, WestIt’s something of an understatement to say that Tim Finn has earned a best-of album by now. The only catch is that it’s taken so long that there’s probably a whole generation in New Zealand – never mind everywhere else – asking “Tim who?” Hence, North, South, East, West… has a bit of an identity crisis: it’s not just a Tim Finn compilation, but crams in the better part of a best of Split Enz best-of album and selections from Crowded House (well, after a fashion) and the Finn Brothers, in addition to the obligatory new songs designed to hook in everyone who’s already bought all of Tim’s previous work.

With that in mind, you have to forgive North, South, East, West…‘s inherent schizophrenia. The one common thread linking all of this very disparate material is Finn’s extremely versaitle voice. Whether it’s the very orchestrated sound of Split Enz or the relatively stripped-down guitar wash of Crowded House or the Finn Brothers, Finn’s voice cuts through the whole mix every time. His solo work has darted back and forth between more ornamented, Enz-like songs and more acoustic fare, so even if you set aside his non-solo projects, there’s no one sound dominating the entire 2-CD set.

The obligatory new material includes songs we haven’t heard before, and new recordings of songs that we have. Finn covers Split Enz’s “Stuff And Nonsense” as a duet with Missy Higgins, and gives Crowded House’s “It’s Only Natural” a similar treatment with Bic Runga riding shotgun. He also covers the Crowded House hit-in-some-parts-of-the-world “Weather With You” with Neil and Liam Finn. Also included are very stripped-down new versions of “So Deep” (from his very-produced, dance-rhythm-heavy second solo album Big Canoe) and Crowded House’s “How Will You Go”, and an instrumental piano cover of a portion of Split Enz’s “Poor Boy”. I felt that a partial cover was a little bit of a cheat (especially when it’s done so well), and “So Deep” already wasn’t my favorite song from Big Canoe, and it doesn’t really benefit from the toned-down rethink. I’m much more partial to “How Will You Go” in its original form, so this new recording, relieved of most of its beautiful vocal harmonies, certainly doesn’t supplant the original. It’s interesting to note that none of the Crowded House songs on this collection are the original recordings – all of them are re-interpretations.

Fortunately, the genuinely new tracks are a treat: “Into The Water” and especially the jumpy “Light Years Away” are up there with the best of Finn’s output over the past decade, and “Nothing Unusual” winds up being a kind of theme song for the whole compilation: it borrows the main riff from “Many’s The Time” and namechecks Enz chestnuts like “Maybe” and “Malmsbury Villa”, and the lyrics talk about the inspiration for songs in general – it’s a song about when one writes and performs songs, a bit of a meta-song, and a pleasant one at that.

Listening back to the songs chosen from Finn’s large body of solo work, I have to say that generally, the songs are very well-chosen; it seems like Big Canoe and Finn’s self-titled 1989 album were buried for some reason (and I still count the latter among his very best solo work), and his work from the musical stage production Steel City isn’t represented at all, but as many labels as Finn has 3 out of 4been on over the years there may be issues there (which may also explain the Crowded House oddity noted above). Once the compilation moves on to music from 1993’s Before & After, things tend to line up, more or less, with the Tim Finn best-of mixes that I’ve been creating for myself for years. Considering how hard it’s become to find some of Tim Finn’s material, this compilation is probably a good idea for those curious about his work.

Order this CD

    Disc One

  1. I See Red performed by Split Enz (3:17)
  2. My Mistake performed by Split Enz (3:02)
  3. Poor Boy performed by Split Enz (3:23)
  4. Six Months In A Leaky Boat performed by Split Enz (4:23)
  5. I Hope I Never performed by Split Enz (4:36)
  6. Dirty Creature performed by Split Enz (4:01)
  7. Maybe performed by Split Enz (2:53)
  8. Stuff And Nonsense performed by Tim Finn & Missy Higgins (3:27)
  9. Fraction Too Much Friction (4:10)
  10. Made My Day (3:20)
  11. So Deep (4:15)
  12. How’m I Gonna Sleep (3:52)
  13. Not Even Close (4:18)
  14. Many’s The Time (4:20)
  15. Persuasion (3:52)
  16. Into The Water (3:14)
  17. Nothing Unusual (4:02)
    Disc Two

  1. Weather With You performed by Tim, Neil & Liam Finn (3:43)
  2. How Will You Go (2:59)
  3. It’s Only Natural performed by Tim Finn & Bic Runga (3:44)
  4. Underwater Mountain (3:55)
  5. Dead Man (4:04)
  6. What You’ve Done (3:43)
  7. Subway Dreaming (4:16)
  8. Angels’ Heap performed by the Finn Brothers (2:50)
  9. Disembodied Voices performed by the Finn Brothers (3:37)
  10. Luckiest Man Alive performed by the Finn Brothers (3:59)
  11. Winter Light (4:11)
  12. Couldn’t Be Done (2:53)
  13. Astounding Moon (3:36)
  14. Straw To Gold (3:58)
  15. Out Of This World (3:01)
  16. The Saw And The Tree (4:05)
  17. Light Years Away (3:09)
  18. Poor Boy (instrumental) (1:31)

Released by: Capitol / EMI
Release date: 2009
Disc one total running time: 64:25
Disc two total running time: 63:14

8 Bit Weapon & ComputeHer – It’s A Chiptune Holiday!

It's A Chiptune Holiday!A fun little EP released just in time for the holiday season, It’s A Chiptune Holiday! is a selection of traditional Christmas music, done in old-school video game style with 8 Bit Weapon’s usual arsenal of custom-programmed classic console sound chips.

“Deck The Halls” kicks things off with harmonized vocoder vocals – it’s like a cheerful choir of Christmas-caroling robots. “Jingle Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” also have robotic vocals, though the latter has a kind of strange diction that makes me wonder if it really is a voice synthesizer as opposed to a human singer’s processed vocals.

The instrumentals are a treat too; “O Christmas Tree” is given a polyphonic arrangement that makes it sound like a “win” tune from Pole Position; “Ave Maria” actually comes closest to what I was expecting to hear from an EP of 8-bit Christmas tunes.

4 out of 4The only problem with It’s A Chiptune Holiday! is that it’s just too short! I instantly thought of about a dozen other Christmas tunes that would sound great with the 8 Bit Weapon treatment; I realize that it’d mean venturing into non-public-domain territory, but I can just about hear a chiptune version of “Christmastime Is Here” from Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas special soundtrack in my head.

The good news is, I hear they’ve already scheduled Christmas for next year – you’ve got 12 months to get on the case, 8 Bit Weapon!

Order this CD

  1. Deck The Halls (Nos Galan) (1:52)
  2. Hanukkah (Festival Of Lights) (1:01)
  3. O Christmas Tree (O Chanukah) (1:31)
  4. Jingle Bells (One Horse Open Sleigh) (1:14)
  5. Joy To The World (2:09)
  6. Greensleeves (What Child Is This) (1:51)
  7. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (2:13)
  8. Ave Maria (The Well-Tempered Clavier) (3:25)

Released by: 8 Bit Weapon
Release date: 2009
Total running time: 15:16

Wendy Carlos – Digital Moonscapes

Wendy Carlos - Digital MoonscapesHaving given her new studio its shakedown cruise during the recording
sessions for the score of Disney’s inscrutably futuristic 1982 movie Tron, composer Wendy Carlos turned to a new challenge – recording a new series of compositions, directly from digital synthesizers with no samples, microphones or any other acoustic recording techniques, fine-tuned until it souded not completely unlike a new piece for orchestra. Jokingly attributing the sounds to the “LSI Philharmonic” (for the large-scale intregrated chips in her new digital synths and recording gear), Carlos created what was almost a modern-day companion piece to Holst’s The Planets, inspired by the then-recent pictures sent back from Jupiter and Saturn by NASA’s Voyager space probes.

Given that my interest in Carlos’ work started with Tron, I’m almost embarrassed to make the comparison, but it must be made – Digital Moonscapes, recorded immediately after the score from that movie, does indeed sound like it could be music from a lost Tron sequel. (And careful listening makes this similarity more than just a coincidence: the piece devoted to Jupiter’s restless volcanic moon Io is actually a rejected cue for Tron‘s light cycle sequence; listening to “Io” side by side with “Light Cycles” from the second volume of Carlos’ Rediscovering Lost Scores reveals the two pieces to be one and the same.) As much as I hate to fall back on a banal comparison, if you liked the music from Tron, Digital Moonscapes is right up your alley.

Trying to get away from that comparison for a moment, Digital Moonscapes is interesting on its own, in some places a little more conventionally classical than that movie soundtrack I keep comparing it to. The other comparison I’ve made, to Holst, deals only with the subject matter. Nowhere in her own liner notes does Wendy Carlos try to draw that comparison, and we’re talking about two completely different kinds of music. As much effort as was put into making Digital Moonscapes sound fully orchestral, there’s no mistaking it for anything but synthesizer music, and ’80s synthesizer music at that. This CD release postdates the original LP by nearly 20 years, though I have an enormous amount of respect for the decision to not tweak the original recordings with more modern technology, because it has a unique character all its own (though I’m a little selfishly disappointed that the thought didn’t occur to add new Rating: 3 out of 4material to accompany Voyager 2’s discoveries at Uranus and Neptune). In tracks such as “Titan”, “Europa”, and portions of the three-part “Cosmological Impressions” suite, Carlos comes dangerously close to achieving that orchestral sound.

It’ll never shake its distinctly ’80s sound, but in some ways, that’s the charm of Digital Moonscapes, and that’s enough to get a recommendation from me.

    Order this CD in the StoreCosmological Impressions

  1. Genesis (7:12)
  2. Eden (4:30)
  3. I.C. (Intergalactic Communications) (3:41)

    Moonscapes

  4. Luna (8:20)
  5. Phobos and Deimos (3:28)
  6. Ganymede (4:25)
  7. Europa (4:19)
  8. Io (4:26)
  9. Callisto (4:29)
  10. Rhea (1:51)
  11. Titan (3:46)
  12. Iapetus (5:50)

Released by: East Side Digital
Release date: 1984 (re-released on CD in 2003)
Total running time: 47:31

Crowded House – Time On Earth

I’m going to admit up front that it’s very hard not to overanalyze a new Crowded House album. In the decade between the final concert appearance of the band’s original lineup at the Sydney Opera House and this album, there’s been at least one book devoted to peering into the members’ psyche, and then Paul Hester died. It’s really difficult not to try to read something in between the lines lyrically, and in terms of Neil Finn’s motivations for trying to rekindle the Crowded House fire.

With new drummer Matt Sherrod aboard for the ride, and one song co-written with the Dixie Chicks, it’s safe to say that Time On Earth is not a revisitation of the “Don’t Dream It’s Over” stylebook. And that’s not a bad thing; the original Crowded House’s final studio album, Together Alone, was endearing precisely because it was such a daring departure from the sound that had evolved over the first three albums produced by Mitchell Froom. As is generally known now, Time On Earth began its life as Finn’s third solo album, and he reunited with Crowded House bassist Nick Seymour to record some tracks in the wake of Hester’s death. Midway through the recording, the project went from “Finn solo plus Seymour” to the return of Crowded House.

“Nobody Wants To” and the first single, “Don’t Stop Now”, however, stay on safe territory – they’re not a million miles away from the less daring tracks on Together Alone, and certainly not as “out there” as some of the cuts from Finn’s first post-Crowded House solo album. “She Called Up” is stylistically structured a little bit like Together Alone‘s “In My Command” (or the Finn B-side “She Comes Scattered”), and is the one song that reminds the most of Finn’s Split Enz-era songwriting. Which isn’t a bad thing.

Finn’s Beatlesque sensibilities come to the fore in “Pour Le Monde”, which sounds to me almost like Double Fantasy-era Lennon. It’s a lovely, wistful anthem of a song with a sumptuous orchestral backing – not something I’d really expect from Crowded House, but nice nonetheless. “Heaven That I’m Making” also smacks a little bit of Lennon, but reminds me even more of Finn solo tunes like “Secret God”.

It’s hard not to hold up “A Sigh” and “Transit Lounge” as an indication of where Crowded House could be headed if this new lineup records another album. They’re not exactly groundbreaking in and of themselves, but more than anything else on Time On Earth, these two tracks especially break out of the “safe” mold from which the rest of the album seems to be cut. The former is filled with atmospheric guitar effects, while the latter has some very strange effects for the first minute or so before settling into its real melody, which features female vocalists and sounds almost ELO-esque in places. “Silent House” is another standout, co-written by Finn with the Dixie Chicks, taking a bold step closer to Together Alone‘s unapologetic distorted-guitar jams. I think I say this at least once for every album in which Neil Finn is involved, but why this wasn’t the lead single, I’ll never know.

The question of “which songs are about Paul?” was ringing through my head while listening to Time On Earth (and before reading any liner notes), and while “You Are The One To Make Me Cry” (an interesting counterpoint to Woodface‘s “All I Ask”), the surprisingly upbeat “English Trees” and the oustanding “People Are Like Suns” seem to address that tragic event most directly, in listening to the entire album, I think it’s probably safest to say that Hester’s suicide and the resulting emotional turmoil left in his wake informs the entire project from beginning to end. Listened to in one sitting, there’s a melancholy that infuses even the seemingly upbeat songs. And that’s not a bad thing – those of us who have followed Crowded House since before “Don’t Dream It’s Over” nearly topped the U.S. charts in 1987 are also missing Paul Hester, and it’s an interesting sort of shared catharsis between audience and artist that is needed on both sides of the equation. I’d love to make it to one of the live shows to see how much of this catharsis bubbles to the surface with the new material on stage.

4 out of 4Time On Earth may not sound like a bundle of laughs, with a decidedly not-light-hearted heaviness weaving through much of its material, but it’s some beautiful music, and hopefully a sign that the house can stay crowded for more albums yet to come. Nick Seymour and, on those songs where he appears, Mark Hart (who folks still seem to forget was a full-time regular member of the band when last we left it) weave their magic and prove that there is, indeed, a difference between a new Crowded House album and a new Neil Finn album. I’d love to see them plow a path off the beaten road as they did with Together Alone, and not necessarily even in the same direction. Welcome back, guys.

Order this CD

  1. Nobody Wants To (4:10)
  2. Don’t Stop Now (3:54)
  3. She Called Up (2:53)
  4. Say That Again (5:21)
  5. Pour Le Monde (5:10)
  6. Even A Child (3:57)
  7. Heaven That I’m Making (3:56)
  8. A Sigh (3:17)
  9. Silent House (5:52)
  10. English Trees (3:43)
  11. Walked Her Way Down (4:17)
  12. Transit Lounge (4:25)
  13. You Are The One To Make Me Cry (3:43)
  14. People Are Like Suns (3:52)

Released by: ATO
Release date: 2007
Total running time: 58:30

Crowded House – Farewell To The World

Farewell To The WorldOn November 24th, 1996, the original lineup of Crowded House (plus longtime touring musician and recent full-time recruit Mark Hart) took its final bow on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, with a crowd of somewhere around 200,000 people making it the biggest concert anywhere in the world that year – ironic when one considers that the whole thing started out with Neil Finn’s suggestion for a humble, small-scale farewell performance for the group’s final public outing…at least in that form.

Farewell To The World has wowed me for a long time, going all the way back to its VHS video release, and I’ve always wondered where in the world the obligatory CD was. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the group’s final performance (as well as to get the Crowded House name back in the public eye just in time for a reunion album and tour), Farewell is finally available on CD and DVD, and it even sidesteps my natural inclination to grumble about re-releases that this edition includes some material that didn’t appear on my now well-worn videotape of the event. Still, this should’ve been on CD years ago.

It’s difficult to overstate just how good a live band Crowded House was. Part of the reason Neil Finn closed the books on Split Enz was to focus on a less “produced” sound that could be more faithfully captured on stage. At least that was the idea before the band teamed up with producer Mitchell Froom, who added churchy organ solos, sampled strings and horns, to name just a few of the touches which meant that the group couldn’t tour without a keyboard wizard in tow. But even with that in mind, the band pulls it off incredibly well here. Songs like “Private Universe” and “Hole In The River,” already more than listenable, take on new life here. (Even with two studio versions of “Private Universe” out there, I consider this performance to be the definitive reading.)

Farewell To The World was already a historical document of sorts, but with Paul Hester’s tragic death, it becomes even moreso. Paul gets his moment in the spotlight during “Sister Madly”, serving as both drummer and comedian, though his impression of Tina Turner falls a little bit flat when robbed of its visual component (file it under “you had to be there”); I’m a little surprised it’s actually on the CD at all. I don’t recall hearing “Italian Plastic” on the previous video release either. To say the whole band is on top form is a bit of an understatement, and I’ve especially got to single out Mark Hart’s luxurious walls of electric guitar feedback, never overpowering but always atmospheric.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Farewell on CD is that it was a bit of, for the lack of a better term, “stealth marketing” presaging the return of Crowded House to the studio and the stage. I’m eagerly awaiting the new album and tour, but I can truthfully see where both camps are coming from (Pro-Crowdies Reunion vs. Get Back Together But Don’t Call It Crowded House Without Paul). As with the reunion itself, it’s too bad that it took a tragedy to finally get this into our CD players.

Order this CD

    Disc one:

  1. Mean To Me (4:11)
  2. World Where You Live (3:33)
  3. When You Come (5:54)
  4. Private Universe (5:35)
  5. Four Seasons In One Day (2:54)
  6. Fall At Your Feet (3:25)
  7. Whispers & Moans (4:30)
  8. Hole In The River (6:47)
  9. Better Be Home Soon (4:43)
  10. Pineapple Head (4:04)
  11. Distant Sun (4:51)
  12. Into Temptation (4:49)
  13. Everything Is Good For You (4:09)
    Disc two:

  1. Locked Out (3:49)
  2. Something So Strong (3:51)
  3. Sister Madly (4:54)
  4. Italian Plastic (3:51)
  5. It’s Only Natural (5:07)
  6. Weather With You (5:22)
  7. There Goes God (4:54)
  8. Fingers Of Love (5:35)
  9. In My Command (4:26)
  10. Throw Your Arms Around Me (2:57)
  11. Don’t Dream It’s Over (6:22)

Released by: Capitol
Release date: 2007
Disc one total running time: 59:25
Disc two total running time: 51:08

The Cardigans – Gran Turismo

The Cardigans - Gran TurismoOnce upon a time, it seems like I reviewed an earlier, and extremely popular, album by the Cardigans, and was kinda harsh about it. Didn’t mind the music, but I was even less crazy about the lyrics. I’m not here to say “I changed my mind, I take it back,” but I will fess up that the Cardigans have, perhaps, improved.

Gran Turismo takes the group’s sparse sound into darker territory across the board. This may sound like no big deal, but the effect is amazing – the new sound suits them a whole lot better than the old, and nowhere is this more evident than in Nina Persson’s biting vocals. She still has an angelic, innocent thing going on with her voice, but if ever I got the mental picture of hearing someone sneering while singing, I got it listening to Gran Turismo. More than a few of the lyrics are about screwed-up relationships or surviving them, and there’s a bitter edge to the vocals that simply wasn’t there in earlier material like “Lovefool”. Nor is there anything like “Lovefool”‘s doormat-ish feel – there’s no pleading for someone to “love me, love me, fool me, fool me”; the “character” in some of these song lyrics is not happy about how things have gone. I could see Gran Turismo as a “break-up album.”

Standouts include “New Beginning”, “Hang Around”, the outstanding “Erase/Rewind” (aptly used in the end credits of the Rating: 3 out of 4movie The Thirteenth Floor, and the primary reason I decided to give the Cardigans another try), and the hit single of the piece, “My Favourite Game”. Much of the best material comes early on if you listen to it straight through – there’s a definite sense of the album losing steam by the end. But this new direction for the Cardigans suits them completely – it’s a sound they’re more than capable of pulling off, and I hope they stick with it.

Order this CD in the Store

  1. Paralyzed (4:59)
  2. Erase / Rewind (3:40)
  3. Explode (4:06)
  4. Starter (3:55)
  5. Hanging Around (3:45)
  6. Higher (4:34)
  7. Marvel Hill (4:16)
  8. My Favourite Game (3:40)
  9. Do You Believe (3:21)
  10. Junk Of The Hearts (4:10)
  11. Nil (2:15)

Released by: Polygram
Release date: 1998
Total running time: 42:41