Sep 3, 2018

CROWDED HOUSE - Crowded House (Capitol Records ST.240555, 1986)

Crowded House made a good name for themselves in their native Southern Hemisphere (they're practically Gods in New Zealand and Australia) and the UK, but never really managed to crack the American market - well, you can't win them all. You know how it goes with the American market. It's more a game of wildman's bluff than anything else. But who cares ? In a matter of decades, heck, a matter of years maybe, considerinmg they're no longer existant, they'll be about as popular in their homeland as they are in the States - that is, knowledge of this band will extend to a couple dozen loyal octogenarian fans and five or six super-intellectual lovers of The Oldies. And hey, no need to get angry at me: such will be the fate of about ninety percent of the bands reviewed on this page. The only people who will live forever will be The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Grand Funk Railroad. (I'd add Bob Dylan here, but his legacy will die the day the world stops speaking English).

There have been several attempts to label Crowded House as revolutionaries of sorts (mostly by noble loyal fans who - bless them - do try to offer their idols massive support over the Internet), combining the honesty, depth and emotionality of singer-songwriters with immaculate commercially oriented pop craft. This is, in my opinion, hardly an honest evaluation: after all, the same thing can be said about friggin' Beatles, and even if you're specifically dealing with the late Eighties, well, there's everybody from R.E.M. to the Smiths to the Cure, you know, everybody who actually wrote smart, preferrably confessional lyrics and set them to catchy pop melodies. Hey, you could say Crowded House just used 'Help!' as the blueprint for their entire career and have something there. However, that's not to say there ain't anything that's "special" about this band. There is. It's just hard to express in formal terms. Crowded House more or less belong to the "one man band" category: although the band had a stable lineup and various members made occasional valuable contributions, especially drummer Paul Hester, it is essentially the product of songwriter, singer, and guitar player Neil Finn, who formed it out of the remains of his previous co-project with brother Tim, Split Enz. I haven't heard Split Enz, but according to what I hear, their music was sort of a smartass New Wave-meets-basic-pop hybrid, mostly tongue-in-cheek and quite imaginative at that. Once Neil Finn started growing up into a mature songwriter and feeling confident enough to start up his own band, though, nothing was tongue-in-cheek anymore.

From the beginning and right up to the end, Crowded House made nothing but chart-oriented pop music. If this is enough to make you drop your toothpick and run for shelter, feel free to do so. Those with a stout heart please remain and learn that when Neil Finn was in high spirits, this was just about the very bestest chart-oriented pop music that could be had at the time, and when you consider the time - late Eighties, pre-grunge period - you'll understand that was no mean feat, even given some strong competition from other "isolated heroes", some of whom I have already listed above. Crowded House never flinched their nose at keyboards and modern production techniques, but never (well, almost never) became their slaves, either; the music was always guitar-based and breathing. Even better, it was always thoughtful and inventive (within standard limits, of course). The players were hardly virtuosos, but who requires that of a pop band ? The drummer keeps it up, the bassist lays it down, the guitarist raises the necessary amount of hell, what else is needed ? And to this one should add Neil Finn's talents as a vocalist - he's got a pleasant range (check out the falsetto) and enough convincing power - and lyricist, as he's always ready to dress up some old banal sentiment in shiny new non-cliched underwear. Or even come up with some new, not totally banal sentiment! Certainly the lyrical matter of songs like 'Into Temptation' could raise an eye or two. Now he's not thoroughly consistent in this matter; from time to time it seems like the assembly line for Mr Finn ("Woodface" in particular suffers from that problem), but hey, we all have our bad day. Fact is, he's really a talented and interesting personality as far as music is concerned. So three cheers for the craziest Kiwi out there!

What ? Hey, I actually meant Peter Jackson, you nitwit! Say, wouldn't it have been fun if Neil Finn wrote the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack ? Then "Temple Of Low Men" would be the name of the musical theme of the Hobbiton tavern ("low men", get it ?), Woodface would be played with the introduction of Treebeard, and Together Alone is, of course, reserved for that deleted scene with Frodo and Sam where... well, you know. And "Kill Eye" ? Now we're getting somewhere - don't dream it's over! In any case, Crowded House only lasted for about a decade and in this decade, produced only four albums. All of them are well worth having, even "Woodface" which is kinda flatter than everything else because it originated as a total mess and ended up likewise. In terms of creative evolution, this band is hardly worth discussing; the last album showed some tiny signs of potential creative growth, but since these were mostly limited to including tribal music and adult contemporary elements, I wouldn't have held out much hope even if there was more to come, which there wasn't. But, like I said, this band was never about creative growth. This band was for exorcising one's demons and getting some nice hard cash along the way, and from 1986 to 1993 they did it with style and success. And, just like one fellow popmeister once repeated three or four times over the course of five or six minutes, "what's wrong with that ?".

Along with the Bangles' "Different Light", their debut album "Crowded House" was the album that proved you could actually have a pop hit in Pop Music's Worst Year without conforming it to the lifeless synth-pop formula of the day. I'm not sure if Crowded House's debut really holds up well for present (or future) generations, though; in order to truly enjoy it, one simply has to perceive it in the context of the general musical scene of the time, because otherwise, most of the songs on here just come off as third-rate McCartney imitations. On the up side, some albums are more timeless than others, and that doesn't mean others are prohibited from surviving at all. And Neil Finn certainly proves he has a rather wide range of melodic talent with this music. It is perhaps Mitchell Froom's production that does him the most unjustice: the emphasis is so strongly put on bombastic percussion, echoey, powerful guitars and loud, overwhelming vocals, that upon first listen you get the impression it's all production and none of it really has any true staying power. In fact, when I put the record on for the first time, I was simply left with this one burning question: "hy oh why do you have to keep yelling at me for so long ?" An impression like that can forever ruin a man's life - after all, it's so much easier to make your song rhythmic and loud than to make it creative; not really on this occasion, though.

There's not even a single trace of witty post-modernism or an overall sarcastic/self-ironic approach to the material: obviously, one of the reasons Neil Finn became separate from his former band Split Enz was that he wanted to give more room to his newly-developing, seriously romantic style, one which would really try to capture the listener's true emotions, not block them out. Some say that what Finn does on here is join "professional pop craft" with "confessional" singer-songwriter values, and this could actually be rephrased by stating that what he really does is merely put the feeling back into pop music. Like a Ray Davies of the Eighties (but don't take the comparison too seriously). Overall, he succeeds. The selection of instruments, the little melodic hooks, and Neil's own powerful, yet intentionally vulnerable vocals work well - it's hardly an unprecedented combination, but it's certainly a good one. Of course, the main problem is with the melodies; very few of them contain unpredictable elements. In fact, as far as the melodies go, it's just a perfectly good, not outstanding, pop album. Think, uh, Badfinger or something, certainly not the Kinks or not even the Move. Typical syndrome of this is when so few of the verse melodies even approach interesting, with the main hook always residing in the chorus. So if the chorus doesn't strike you as genius, chances are you'll never become a diehard Crowded House fan.

Unless you shun radio, TV, and the world in general, you probably know the hit "Don't Dream It's Over" (I shun all these things, so of course I've never heard it before embarking on this particular review journey). True to its name, it's dreamy and even more echoey than the other songs, as well as extremely optimistic and comforting, a perfect song for your average depressed guy to embark upon. The chorus is a great treat, and a perfect choice to blast out of your window without seriously risking to get it from the neighbours - a little cheesy, I guess you could call it, but at least it's not a power ballad by definition, much as it has the "lighters up syndrome" etched into it. The rest of the songs rarely get too sentimental; they're pop-rockers rather than pop-ballads, and have very little chance of becoming seriously irritating. "Mean To Me" starts the album with vigorous acoustic strumming and a melody that would certainly remind you of some Seventies' singer-songwriting, but then picks up steam to become a pompous, overweight, lumpy rocker burdened with horns and mock-psychedelic keyboard splurges. Don't let the transformation and the basic basic oh so basic four-four rhythm detract you from the song's hooks, though. "World Where You Live" is basically "Mean To Me" without the optimistic bravado - but it still boasts a classic chorus, and I could easily see a band like XTC doing a song like that, albeit saddled with Andy Partridge's nerdy intonations. (Then again, it's a big question whether I actually prefer Patridge's jerky paranoia or Finn's New Romantic-derived hyper-emotionality).

"Now We're Getting Somewhere" is one of the best highlights, a bouncy folksy shuffle that's probably tremendously easy to play, yet packs a lot of naive, slightly childish emotion (as well as patented Beatlesque chord changes played on the electric guitar and a grumbly little accordeon melody to give it a goofy pseudo-French flavour ?). "Love You 'Til The Day I Die" is a conscious attempt to play it a little 'rougher' around the edges (no no no, it ain't hard rock at all), and is pretty decent, especially when the menacing ascending melody in the chorus comes around. I sure wish Neil wouldn't try so passionately to scream his head off all the way through, though. As a symbolic gesture, I won't name a single song on side two of the album , mainly because the overall style is always the same - there's not much diversity or experimentation going on, as you can guess. Okay, I'll make one exception: you can hardly review Crowded House's debut and not mention the hit single 'Something So Strong'. It's, uh, a good hit single. There, I've mentioned it. None of the songs are bad, but I really can't waste time repeating the same formula over and over. I'm sure Crowded House fans could write a 500-page book extolling all the new and revolutionary elements contained in this album, but there are different degrees of originality, and my barrier limit is certainly a wee bit higher than what I've managed to see so far.

Hey, by the way, you ever wondered why the absolute majority (that's my cautious way of saying "every single one", by the way) of Beatles imitators over the years would always be sticking to just one side of the band's personality ? Like Cheap Trick would take the "angry John Lennon vibe" and Crowded House would take the "shiny McCartney element" ? Not that the answer isn't obvious, but this is really a case of the potential question being much more interesting than the potential answer.

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