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