DrJ on DrJ on the new 2CD reissues of all seven Crowded House albums
By the summer of 1985, Neil Finn was 27 and already he was an old soul. For eight years he had been in Split Enz: He had been around the world, had written their biggest hit, had felt their diminishing returns and finally he orchestrated the band’s dissolution. He was also married with a baby. Split Enz had never been his band though, it had belonged to his older brother Tim.
So that summer he decamped to LA with a record deal for a new band pulled from the end of the Enz and initially called The Mullanes. While playing in Chinese restaurants and with everyone living in the one crowded house, á la The Monkees, they recorded a debut album with producer Mitchell Froom. They also figured out what their new name should be.
Their debut album, Crowded House, came out in 1986 and in a parallel universe it would live alongside earnest but less well-regarded contemporaries like Icehouse and Burgeous Tagg: Vaguely remembered by some, fondly remembered by a few. Yet here we are thirty years later with this deluxe 2CD reissue leading off an overhaul of the entire catalogue.
The original record stands up simply because of the songs, which, to varying degrees, overcome the date stamp of the album’s production. What the kids would call ‘The A Side” is all killer, while closing B-side tracks “Tombstone” and “That’s What I Call Love” are rightfully hidden away and would not be well-remembered by most Crowdie fans. Listening to the album with hindsight, the band haven’t figured out yet what their collective personality is. They are still playing to the gallery in a way that would change over future records.
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” towers over everything else – this is even more pronounced when it appears in primordial form amongst the demos on the bonus disc. In its final form it is the apotheosis of that mid-eighties sound, and yet it manages to be timeless – that’s a good trick. Elvis Costello contends that Mitchel Froom lifted his organ part from the end of I’ll Wear It Proudly and grafted it into DDIO’s middle 8. On this side of the Atlantic, where we weren’t paying that much attention to Crowded House in 1986, neither Don’t Dream It’s Over or Something So Strong managed to match the top ten status that they got in the US.
(For the purposes of this review, your reviewer only had access to streaming the music on the second discs, and had to refer to his own original albums. This means that I can’t really say whether this record, which to me has always sounded a bit quiet on CD, now sounds any louder. Nor do I know what’s in the books. Sorry!)
The bonus disc is arranged in such a way that it starts off with songwriting demos. Early versions of well-known songs, second-guessing you as to what form they are going to take. For instance there’s the early take of “Something So Strong” which has yet to attain the air-punching chorus of the final version or an early “Hole In The River” which comes worrying close to Wham! Rap. There’s a lot of pop music here that sounds like the early 80s. Songs that would fit right into the last Split Enz album, See Ya ‘Round. Indeed, that’s where some of these demos come from.
As the bonus disc progresses though you get the feeling that Neil is reaching for something, and the band are getting to know each other. The home demo of Don’t Dream It’s Over arrives in order to give the band a signature tune and sign post. The disc ends with some live tracks from the day when they were still called The Mullanes (they really did dodge a bullet there). They were tight.
With two US top ten songs on their debut, the second album, Temple Of Low Men, arrived in 1988 with more confidence and depth. A deft 10 songs in 38 minutes, it flies by, maybe only Kill Eye and Never Be The Same don’t pull their weight.
The bonus disc follows the same arc of early demos progressing to confident live takes. This time around though, the pop edge to the songs are gone replaced by Neil’s melody-melancholy. Some of the demos are skeletal and short, but the music is more intimate. By the time we get into the studio, the band too have found their voice, as Paul Hester interrupts takes of Sister Madly and madness ensues.
As it turned out, Temple… didn’t replicate the US success of their debut. Better Be Home Soon was side-lined as a lead single for sounding “too country” apparently. On the plus side, anyone who saw the band live were unable to not love them, and some people were noticing. In particular the new breed of Q Magazine record buyers.
By the summer of 1990, Neil is now 32, has become a dad for the second time, and maybe, just maybe, Crowded House have achieved all the success it can achieve. Neil starts recording an album with his brother Tim which means writing with him for the first time. As the songs flow, and they are good songs, wouldn’t it seem logical to put them towards a new Crowded House album instead? Less logical was folding Tim into the band too. The result was Woodface.
In the UK and Europe, Woodface did what the debut had done in the US. Gradual build and word of mouth led to an eventually massive single: “W*****r W**h Y*u”. The sound on Woodface is more robust and less of its time than their debut only 5 years earlier. Woodface actually sounds like wood: Solid, bouncy, reliable, warm.
Fans still debate about the first single and album opener Chocolate Cake: For many, the song sticks out like a sore thumb in their catalogue. If it had existed as a album track hiding in Woodface’s last third, things might be different.
On the week that the album came out in July 1991 the band appeared on Late NIght With David Letterman, and things just seemed off: Crowded House now had two front men. Neil, the founder, was performing without an instrument, which was not his usual state. Tim, now the new guy, seemed bigger, more extroverted, and is enjoying throwing the shapes of a frontman in his ironically swarthy outfit. The voices blended perfectly, the body language… not so much.
The album was well received, and its other singles (“Fall At Your Feet”. “It’s Only Natural” “Four Seasons in One Day” and “W*****r W**h Y*u”) all landed comfortably in the UK charts and for the third time Neil Finn is on a pop rollercoaster going up. Woodface’s faults are few. Maybe it’s two tracks too long (“Fame Is”, “All I Ask”), and again all the gold is up front. Pretty much any track from the A-side is liable to be played by Ken Bruce at any minute.
Tim wasn’t to last and things came to a head before a gig in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre in November. The trio went on and Tim went home. It was the right call.
The Woodface bonus disc is an embarrassment of riches. Acoustic demos from the Finn Brothers are so good, it seems obvious why adding Tim to the band would have seemed like a fine idea at the time. Even Paul’s Italian Plastic demo shows all the band were at the top of their game. There’s a “live medley” at the end which only makes you long for a definitive live Crowded House collection where we can hear the entire “Ramones version” of “It’s Only Natural”.
Coming off Woodface, it was all to play for. Could they consolidate on the album’s success? To do so, the band, now with official touring keyboard player Mark Hart as an official fourth member, holed up in a clifftop house in New Zealand for a few weeks with new producer Youth. The result was Together Alone.
Together Alone remains the pinnacle of Crowded House’s catalogue, and of all of Neil Finn’s work. By turns comforting, confrontational, wistful, and always deeply melodic. It reaches for the light in spite of every pressure towards the dark. “I don’t pretend to know what you want, but I offer love” exclaims Neil on Distant Sun. It’s a timeless, wonderful album and Youth gives them a truly cohesive band sound while bringing out the music’s emotion.
To get an idea of the journey that the band have been on to get to this point, compare “Walking on the Spot” which appears in demo form on the bonus disc of the first album, and in a final completed form on Together Alone. In the former, it’s a bright, propulsive, poppy thing, and in the latter it’s world-weary, lived in, sung with heart and played sympathetically by the band. (If you want to be obsessive about this kind of thing, there was a live b-side version in between, which seems to have escaped these reissues).
That first single, Distant Sun, was trailed by a full colour, rear-page advert in Q. The band were cover-stars of the nascent Mojo magazine. Everything was in position, then Paul Hester decided to go home…
It was only in retrospect that Neil Finn realised that Crowded House were doomed when Paul left. I saw them in 1992 with Paul in a small venue and again in 1994 in a 6,000 person arena and new drummer, Peter Jones. The difference was obvious. Less funny, less nimble. The delicate balance of the band had been completely thrown, and the indelicate point was that Jones was not the right drummer for the band. He was their Kenney Jones, not their Zak Starkey.
The bonus disc for Together Alone is a bit of a disappointment, especially coming after the Woodface one. In the past it had seemed possible that Together Alone could have been expanded to a multidisc Super Deluxe Edition. Making the album involved multiple jam sessions from the band, and there has been talk of possible instrumental cuts and more an ambient version of the album from Youth. In the end, there’s only two studio cuts of Fingers Of Love and Black & White Boy to give us a sense of the band cutting loose. There are two examples of the ambient side of things: a fantastic dubby remix of Locked Out and the previously unreleased Zen Roxy. I’d have been quite happy to have a disc of ambient Crowded House (Spacious House?) and another of raw studio footage, and why not get a 5.1 surround mix while we’re at it to make the best of Together Alone’s already immersive sound. (An insider over on the Steve Hoffman Music Forum has said that surround sound mixes were up for consideration for all the albums, but that Neil wasn’t particularly interested.). There was also a home movie-style documentary from the sessions that would be nice to see again.
In the aftermath of the Together Alone experience, Neil retreated again to make a record with Tim. The album, called FINN, came out in 1995 and the brothers toured as a duo. Still not ready for a full on Crowded House album, the band reunited with Paul Hester and producer Mitchell Froom for a week of sessions to record three songs for a greatest hits compilation. When Recurring Dream came out in May 1996, it gave them their first UK number one (the compilation did not include “Chocolate Cake”). However while Neil had started the promotional push for the album promising a bright future for the band, by the end he had decided to break everything up and start again.
Those three songs recorded for Recurring Dream (“Instinct”, “Not The Girl You Think You Are” & “Everything Is Good For You”) appear on the bonus disc of Afterglow alongside their demo versions. Afterglow originally came out in 1999 and is essentially a rarities and compilation album (perhaps a contractual obligation too). It’s a little meta to see it here alongside the rest of the Crowded House catalogue with its own bonus disc of rarities. The beauty of Afterglow however is that it is sequenced and presented as a “regular” Crowded House album, with the usual enigmatic Nick Seymour artwork. You could listen to this and not be aware that its actually a decade of leftovers.
This Pinocchio compilation that became a real album remains a true joy, perhaps because there was so much good stuff to choose from, and perhaps, because of its genesis, it doesn’t try so hard,
It is also the fifth and final Crowded House album to mention “kitchen” in the lyrics.
If there’s a problem with Afterglow it’s a train-spottery one: Half of its songs are from Woodface-era sessions – so these songs should be on the Woodface bonus disc – which makes the quality of the Woodface bonus disc even more spectacular. It’s hard to keep up.
The bonus disc for Afterglow gives an indication of what a 1996 Crowded House album might have been like, had Neil decided to expand upon the Recurring Dream tracks. “Spirit of The Stairs” is the best of the new songs and “Loose Tongue” eventually turned up on his 1998 solo debut. It’s worth pointing out that by this stage in the reissues the songs labelled “home demos” have stopped sounding like broadcasts from a Tour Bus Tascam and are now akin to tracks from the Finn Brothers’ FINN album – no bad thing.
It seemed that Crowded House were finally done, compounded by Paul Hester’s suicide in March 2005. From that tragedy the band gradually reconvened. On the day the news of Paul’s death broke, I had tickets to see Neil and Tim doing a Finn Brothers gig in the Royal Albert Hall. To remember Paul, Nick Seymour came on at the encores having flown in from his Dublin home. After their London run, Neil, Tim and Nick flew to Australia for Paul’s funeral.
Nick became involved in Neil’s next solo album, and gradually the project morphed into a new Crowded House album – 13 years on from Together Alone.
Time On Earth is not a bad album, per se. It’s just a little long, generally downbeat, and lacks some cohesion. The reality is that only four of the tracks are, strictly speaking, Crowded House tracks played by Neil, Nick, Mark and new drummer Matt. When the album is good, it’s very good. Comeback single “Don’t Stop Now” sounded exactly what you would expect from a 2007 Crowded House single. It’s a tight piece of work with more going on than you realise with its own infectious momentum. “Pour Le Monde” is possibly Neil Finn’s best song. On the other hand, “She Called Up”, a song literally about being telephoned about Hester’s death, seems too jaunty.
The bonus disc is a little underwhelming, only 13 tracks long, including previously released tracks “Lost Island” and “Stare Me Out”. Considering the size of the tour that followed Time On Earth’s release, it’s a wonder that there’s no live material this time around.
Our journey ends in 2010 with Intriguer. The last Crowded House album to date, and who knows? Maybe the last Crowded House album of all. Intriguer is a latter-day triumph. An over-looked gem of a record and the type of thing that can only be delivered by trained professionals who know what they’re doing. In contrast to Time On Earth, Intriguer is an 10-song, 40 minute masterclass in how to do this kind of thing. They are a band again and Matt Sherrod is fully in the pocket on drums.
I’m still not sure why the album disappeared so quickly after its release. Everybody was happy to see Crowded House again in 2007, maybe by 2010 everyone had gone back to taking them for granted. Intriguer is also a very subtle record – it might pass you by on a first listen , but soon you realise its hidden depths and deep hooks. Whatever was to blame for it’s brief shelf-life, none of it was helped by Neil’s new moustache. “Saturday Sun” and “Twice If You’re Lucky” were the usual melodic friends, “Either Side Of The World” and “Archer’s Arrows” repaid repeated listens and drew you back to the album.
The Intriguer bonus disc is also a secret treat. It forgoes the opening wonky demos of the other bonus discs and instead kicks off with an unreleased live track “Only Way To Go Is Forward”. There are alternative live and studio versions of six Intriguer tracks which are different enough to construct an alternate version of the album. You also get to hear the band stretch out: “Turn It Around” sounds like CH doing Radiohead, “Two Minutes of SIlence” echoes Peter Gabriel.
If you don’t know these records already, everyone should own Woodface and Together Alone – they’re the Rumours and Tusk of the Crowded House catalogue. If you’ve got some Woodface and a greatest hits already, and want to know what’s the best off piste stuff to get, buy Afterglow and Intriguer.
As for the bonus discs, across seven albums theres 120 new Crowded House tracks here to take in. To be honest, the first two album bonus discs might not hold up to repeated listens. Some of those early demos are curios: Interesting, yes, but unlikely to keep your interest up. The Woodface bonus disc is the business. Every home should have one.
With a run of gigs due later in November at the courtyard outside Sydney Opera House, maybe it’s time again for Crowded House to slightly take over the world. Neil has said the Sydney gigs are a one-off, but after 30 years who would deny them a celebratory retrospective Crowded House tour to cement their status as international treasures. Sunday afternoon at Glasto anyone?
~~ The Crowded House reissues are out on November 4th. 2CD sets with the original album on CD1, and mostly unreleased material on CD2. The albums on their own are also being re-released on vinyl but will come with a download card for the album and all the bonus material. ~~