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