Crowded House – Woodface (Deluxe Edition)

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 4 out of 4hobbies 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.

Order this CD

    Disc 1 – original album:

  1. Chocolate Cake (4:02)
  2. It’s Only Natural (3:32)
  3. Fall at Your Feet (3:18)
  4. Tall Trees (2:19)
  5. Weather with You (3:44)
  6. Whispers and Moans (3:39)
  7. Four Seasons in One Day (2:50)
  8. There Goes God (3:50)
  9. Fame Is (2:23)
  10. All I Ask (3:55)
  11. As Sure as I Am (2:53)
  12. Italian Plastic (3:39)
  13. She Goes On (3:15)
  14. How Will You Go (4:14)
    Disc 2 – bonus tracks:

  1. Burnt Out Tree (Home Demo) (1:36)
  2. I May Be Late (Home Demo) (3:06)
  3. She Goes On (Home Demo) (3:13)
  4. As Sure As I Am (Home Demo) (2:37)
  5. My Legs Are Gone (Studio Demo) (4:33)
  6. You Got Me Going (Home Demo) (3:23)
  7. Italian Plastic (Home Demo) (2:54)
  8. Be My Guest (Home Demo) (2:03)
  9. Weather With You (Home Demo) (3:08)
  10. Chocolate Cake (Home Demo) (3:50)
  11. How Will You Go (Home Demo) (2:46)
  12. It’s Only Natural (Home Demo) (3:21)
  13. Four Seasons In One Day (Home Demo) (2:42)
  14. There Goes God (Home Demo) (2:43)
  15. Catherine Wheel (Home Demo) (3:00)
  16. All I Ask (Home Demo) (2:43)
  17. Fields Are Full Of Your Kind (3:29)
  18. Creek Song / Left Hand (3:04)
  19. Fall At Your Feet (Rehearsal Early Version) (3:22)
  20. The Burglar’s Song (Medley) – Around The UK In 7 Minutes (Live) (7:21)
  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

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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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