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"After all my complaining gonna love this life"

Class D

Main Category: Smart Pop
Also applicable: Singer-Songwriters
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Crowded House fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Crowded House fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Crowded House made a good name for themselves both 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'? Dude!!!!! Now we're getting somewhere - don't dream it's over!

Ahem. Sorry about that. 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?".

Lineup: Neil Finn - guitar, piano, vocals; Nick Seymour - bass; Paul Hester - drums. Brother and former Split Enz colleague Tim Finn (guitar, vocals) joined, 1990, quit again, late 1991. Mark Hart (guitars) joined, 1993. Hester left, 1994, replaced by session drummers. Band officially ceased to exist in 1996; since then, Neil has been working either solo or in collaboration with Tim again.



Year Of Release: 1986

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

I call this style PIMP - Paranoid Idealistically Manufactured Pop.


Track listing: 1) Mean To Me; 2) World Where You Live; 3) Now We're Getting Somewhere; 4) Don't Dream It's Over; 5) Love You 'Til The Day I Die; 6) Something So Strong; 7) Hole In The River; 8) Can't Carry On; 9) I Walk Away; 10) Tombstone; 11) That's What I Call Love.

Along with the Bangles' Different Light, this 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: "WHY 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. Ever. Never ever.

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.



Year Of Release: 1988

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

Isn't this the pinnacle of youthful quasi-religious idealism in Eighties pop? Well, is it?

Best song: KILL EYE

Track listing: 1) I Feel Possessed; 2) Kill Eye; 3) Into Temptation; 4) Mansion In The Slums; 5) When You Come; 6) Never Be The Same; 7) Love This Life; 8) Sister Madly; 9) In The Lowlands; 10) Better Be Home Soon.

This one maybe doesn't have a total knockout like 'Don't Dream It's Over' when you assess the tracklisting with one general glance, but overall, it's more consistent, and then there's the MOOD. Neil Finn grows weary, displeased, unhappy, and a little bit God-fearing, and he adds this little drop of pessimistic acid into the already well-shaken brew, totally reversing the accents and whatever.

Yeah! I've read negative reviews of this, and I've read positive ones, and here's my take on this stuff: it grows on you. On first listen, you might think it's all way overproduced and the hooks are almost missing, but then they come out, and when they come out and take their place next to the gentle, slightly, but not overbearingly preachy, and deeply sincere message, that's when the impression is complete and Temple Of Low Men is ready to achieve "cult", if not necessarily "classic", status. If anything, the hooks are just inadequately distributed - the songs are long, and often there's, like, one of them per song (usually in the chorus), and that disturbs the economy principles. But this is well balanced by intelligent lyrics, honest vocal delivery, and besides, this stuff is really not overproduced, even if the keyboard quota is somewhat up from last time.

Essentially, I'd say Finn "exorcises his demons" on here, to use a well-marinated cliche. And that's good: the decade that introduced sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek references as word o' the day needs its share of albums like these. It's hardly a coincidence that I often hear the title of this album in the same sentence with U2's Joshua Tree; only where U2 had more or less forsaken any pop instincts by the time their 1987 record came out, Finn is still very much willing to remember them. So you get a confessional, straight-faced, sensitive album based on conservative pop hooks - in the Eighties! Does it really bother you, then, that it could have been better?

The record does open innocently enough with 'I Feel Possessed', a song very much in the debut album vein, only emphasized by this strange buzzing keyboard sound in the background (almost sounds like Mellotron to me at times! but no, it's probably just an organ), but then drifts into menacing territory with the power pop anthem 'Kill Eye', easily the best song on the album, with a killer bassline, great jarring guitar melodies, more of that ominous organ buzz and Finn at his most paranoid - screaming 'I wanna be forgiven! I wanna laugh with children! Won't you ever forgive me?' It's not really "scary", because Finn can't bring himself to writing (and arranging) a truly scary song, but it's certainly disturbing to some extreme. And if the powerhouse brass lines do seem at times to be lifted from 'Lady Madonna', well, it's just a natural chain of evolution. For all I know, Blur's 'Beetlebum' steals one of the instrumental hooklines off 'Kill Eye', so let's call it quits.

The next song is lyrically even more disturbing - a song about romance and lust called... 'Into Temptation'? Now lessee, when did pop songmakers start writing about the religious aspects of promiscuity? Surely there's something extraordinary going on, and you're "tempted" yourself to wonder whether Finn really means it when he sings 'the guilty get no sleep in the last slow hours of morning, the experience is cheap, I should've listened to the warning' or if he means, well, something else. And in the meantime, there's more of that organ sound enveloping you - goddammit I love that sound. He could have used generic "heavenly" synth tones of the times, but he prefers to construct something radically different for the background, and that's great.

In the next song, Finn boldly proclaims that 'I'd much rather have a caravan in the hills than a mansion in the slums'. Did we forget the hook? Well... you could say so, but what about that goofy descending keyboard line going through all the song? Let's call it an "indirect" hook and say that the overall sound fully compensates for its indirectness. Listen to that song - it emphasizes everything that rules about the Crowded House sound. Big, massive drums, and at the same time not at all electronic, just brought high up in the mix. Free-flowing, breathing bass. Unprocessed jangly guitars. Lots of fat keyboards - pianos, organs, everything so natural and "anti-synthetic". Easily some of the very best production you'll meet in the Eighties.

Plus, there's that singing - so lively and humane. Doesn't that Finn guy have such a friendly voice? The charm of songs like 'When You Come' is rooted in his singing - one word: "modulation". He goes from one note to another, stretches out when necessary, he knows the secrets of this profession almost as well as, say, Jeff Lynne, easily the best "voice modulator" of the preceding decade. I would never have rated a song like 'Never Be The Same' highly if not for one thing: the way he modulates his singing on the 'and rise up throooooough the maze' line. That woos me over every time.

Okay, let me just mention two more highlights and say goodnight. Thing number one: 'Sister Madly', a boppy jazzy composition with the drummer boy taking up the brushes and the great Richard Thompson himself guesting on guitar (delivering a short, but fun, solo). Great catchy chorus too. Thing number two: 'Better Be Home Soon', a suave folksy ballad that could be rendered hideous through generic production, but with its reliance on acoustic guitars and more of that electric jangle, it turns out marvelous - and presents a suitably optimistic, heart-warming conclusion to an overall bleek performance.

Anyway, if you don't get what the hoopla is about, give it a little time. Hey, even without the soul this album is still a marvelous piece of production. Throw in the soul, and you have yourself a candidate for one of the best "serious" albums of the decade.

The only downside is Finn's non-willingness to break loose from the conventions of that one single style he's chosen, but then again, given the time of release, it's a big question whether he should have even begun doing that - and you just don't trade a stylish, respect-winning, and essentially individualistic (for all it's worth, few people really sounded like Crowded House at their best, not possessing the recipe for blending old pop songwriting with new production technologies) formula like that for risky experiments. No, let's just enjoy Temple Of Low Men for what it is. And if you experience an urge to get a little sentimental about it, well, don't fight it. Let the inner sissy in you take over for a minute, then go back to your XTC. Or your Motorhead, for that matter.



Year Of Release: 1991

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 10

I just can't get over the streamlining approach on this one.


Track listing: 1) Chocolate Cake; 2) It's Only Natural; 3) Fall At Your Feet; 4) Tall Trees; 5) Weather With You; 6) Whispers And Moans; 7) Four Seasons In One Day; 8) There Goes God; 9) Fame Is; 10) All I Ask; 11) As Sure As I Am; 12) Italian Plastic; 13) She Goes On; 14) How Will You Go.

So many songs, I can't bear it. Once upon a time, people used to have fourteen-song pop albums, too - that wasn't a bad tradition at all, because that would give the customer his money's worth, and if the band were talented enough and watched the filler percentage carefully, there would be no reason for discontent. However, it was only real good as long as the band would poke its nose into different corners of the musical world. A bit of rock'n'roll here, a bit of balladry there, some Roy Orbison-style pop on Side A, some passionate R'n'B a la Isley Brothers on Side B, you get me. And if all of these things were pulled off well, chances are you'd end up in possession of a minor (or major) masterpiece.

Which Woodface, Crowded House's third album, just isn't. Not in my eyes, at least. It's pretty damn weird, I confess, but I just can't get wooed over by this record, as much as I try to. Some fans claim that with the reunion of the two brothers, Neil and Tim, the band got the fresh shot of adrenaline it needed and went on to new heights. I happen to respectfully disagree with that. I'm all for brotherly love, but the results just plain tire me. I won't say "bore me", because, honestly, the album ain't boring. The songs are good. But there's too many of them, and they're all so goddamn similar in style that I close my eyes and I see the flaming label of "MASS PRODUCTION" heavily stamped on the album.

The reason I spoke so highly of Crowded House and Temple Of Low Men, two nicely done, but essentially derivative, pop albums, was that they acted not so much as mere collections of pop songs, but rather a vehicle for the obviously inspired and poetic soul of Neil Finn to manifest itself. Their pop hooks were living, and almost every song made some kind of spiritual point, both with its music and its lyrics, not to mention the actual vocal delivery. In dire contrast, Woodface is just a pop album. And in 1991, when you make a pop album, it's not enough to just make a pop album. Make nothing but a pop album in 1991 and it'll either be ridiculously retro or ridiculously dumb. Fortunately, the Finn brothers have enough talent so as not to head in either of these directions, but not even talent can protect me from this feeling of "hardcore blandness".

As weird as it may seem, I actually think that the decision to sing so many vocal parts jointly instead of letting Neil do all the work as usual was a bad one. The tormented loner, etc., etc. turns out to be all but gone - replaced by a couple of guys who throttle the passion in each other, professional, slick, and never really moving. A similarly unpleasant thing has happened to the production and the arrangements - much slicker than before, and I mean it. The drums are mushy instead of harsh and precise, the guitars are soft and sissy, the bass is just sort of there because you can't really do without bass, and so on. And there's hardly a single true instrumental hook in sight - now these guys have always been heavier on the vocals than on the music, but hey, let's not overdo it.

There's one exception, 'Chocolate Cake'. That lil' thing would have easily fit onto either of the two preceding albums. It hits really hard - both metaphorically, with its thinly veiled attack on mass culture values, and literally, with a mean drum attack and angry guitar wailing. As the album opener, it's probably perfect. But things immediately go downhill starting from track two. Is 'It's Only Natural' a bad song? Not at all. It's well-written, well-played, and well-meaning. But it just doesn't click. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, melody rises, melody falls, steady four-four rhythm, predictable rhythm guitars, change of pitch for the chorus, yes, the formula is well followed, but to what effect? None at all. The minor hit single 'Fall At Your Feet'? Uhh... it's okay. Romantic without being too sappy, moderately catchy without being annoying, and I can hear the bass alright. Uh... what else? Uh... well... okay, there's one moment of really really pretty modulation in that song, the moment where he goes 'I'll be waiting when you call'. That moment happens to be truly captivating. (Why is it only repeated twice?). But what's up with the easy-going adult contemporary keyboard solo? What's up with that?

It's hardly any wonder that in between endless streams of songs like these - professional, but soulless exercises in pop craft - the few really soulful moments get hopelessly lost. I never paid much attention to 'Four Seasons In One Day' before meeting a couple opinions about how this song is actually the best thing on the album, after which I relistened to it again, pulling it out of context, and lo and behold, it is really a pretty, utterly believable "philosophical ballad" from Neil that doesn't reek of the assembly line all by itself. But put it back in context, between the plodding, unmemorable shuffle of 'Whispers And Moans' and the... uh, plodding, unmemorable shuffle of 'There Goes God', and it's all gone.

It doesn't help to bring in Paul Hester as supporting songwriter either - his 'Italian Plastic' is a rather stupid-sounding novelty number where he tries to merge the trademark Crowded House style with Latin elements, and the results are neither invigorating nor funny, although they aren't openly obnoxious either. Get this: I don't hate listening to albums like this one, I hate writing about them. Masterpiece? Great, I have plenty of things to say about it. Piece of trash? Even better, I have to be able to justify this categorization. Woodface? Uh... yeah. Okay. Is it just an accident that after the last sounds of the okayish (not great) ballad 'How Will You Go' fade out, they suddenly crash into a wild one-minute piece of studio debauchery, singing 'I still wanna get laid'? It's unannounced in the track listing, but it's easily the one piece on the whole record that sounds sincerest. Hey, they still wanna get laid, that's why they're so desperately trying to cross over to the mainstream. Silly lads. Wasn't that the year of Nevermind? Maybe Neil shouldn't have tried to minimalize distortion.

Granted, Woodface did appear under somewhat confused circumstances - Tim's joining the band was unlooked for, and the final product arose as a bastardized merger of the real third Crowded House album and a joint venture of the Tim/Neil duo. In that way, it's possible to admit that neither of the two projects had the time to come to real fruition, and that the large number of songs, due to their coming from two sets of recording sessions rather than one, couldn't be checked by any serious quality control. Then again, maybe it could, and in any case, history tends to look askance at these kinds of "mishaps due to unfortunate circumstances". The good news is, the next album would be better.



Year Of Release: 1993

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

The demons are back, let's bake them a cake.


Track listing: 1) Kare Kare; 2) In My Command; 3) Nails In My Feet; 4) Black & White Boy; 5) Fingers Of Love; 6) Pineapple Head; 7) Locked Out; 8) Private Universe; 9) Walking On The Spot; 10) Distant Sun; 11) Catherine Wheels; 12) Skin Feeling; 13) Together Alone.

It's as if Woodface never existed - Crowded House's last album, with a few reservations, is essentially Temple Of Low Men Revisited! Now, reservations first. This record is much denser in sound, as if all the money these guys earned finally allowed them to hire a super-professional studio. This isn't always good; the density sometimes takes away from the melodies, and at times pushes them into adult contemporary territory. A song like 'Fingers Of Love', for instance: I like it quite a bit, but I'm not sure the generic 'heavenly' synths in the background actually enhance its heavy mood. In my mind, they are way too closely associated with Phil Collins. Now, can you imagine an arrangement like this on any of the band's first two records? Impossible. What does it speak of? Maturity? Middle age crisis? Lost innocence? Something like that. It's no cause for celebration.

Another reservation is that, at thirteen songs' length, it still feels somewhat inflated. And I happen to know at the expense of what it could have been happily deflated. At the expense of the band's unfortunate overblown experimentation. The title track, closing the album in anthemic style, has absolutely nothing going for it in the "interesting melody" department - it's all about paying tribute to Neil Finn's native homeland, including some Maori tribal chanting and drumming (although, for some reason, the chanting suspiciously reeks of generic gospel in places). That's what I call "overreaching": Crowded House simply do not have the kind of vision it takes to make these things successful. Heck, let's face it: Neil Finn can certainly write a glorious pop melody way better than Peter Gabriel, but when it comes to incorporating ethnic elements, shouldn't we rather leave that to the masters?

Having said that, knock knock, there's an overall rating of 11 at the door, and here's why: most of the songs have The Touch. Tim is out of the band again, and all of a sudden, it doesn't look like a reckless competition to find the most suitable song for a radio entry any more. Or maybe Neil was too shy to sing about his inner world in the presence of his older brother, you think? Why not? I, for one, certainly know my younger brother never lets me inside his inner world, and he's got every right and reason to. Now, being alone again - not in the 'together' sense, actually - Neil starts writing meaningful heartfelt material again. In droves.

Perhaps the best representative of this newly-re-discovered style is 'Nails In My Feet'. The title speaks for itself, but the title says nothing about the melody, which is as gentle and crystal clear and fresh and guitar-based as always, and vocal hooks just keep splashing off the walls. The transition from the rough desperation of the verses to the gorgeous 'and it briiiiings me relief' culmination is so natural and easy-going you can't help but admire the artistry. Other soft-sounding, caressingly arranged ballads like 'Pineapple Head' and 'Catherine Wheels' also qualify in this regard, although they don't strike me nearly as hard because they have less "evolution" within them.

One really good new element here is new member Mick Hart's guitar playing. His style is mostly quite traditional; far from being an aficionado of "new" playing techniques, his main idols seem to rather belong to the Clapton/Harrison crowd - at least, that's my impression. And there's nothing wrong with it, too; it helps make the opening pop rocker, 'Kare Kare', about ten times moodier than it could have been otherwise. The idea is to create a slightly dark, but utterly romantic mood without sounding cliched, and the subtle touches of Hart's slide guitar after each verse are the main ingredient in the concoction; the song's main hookline is not the actual chorus, but rather the way Finn's oo-oo-ooing seamlessly merges with Hart's playing.

For those who want to hear their favourite band rocking out, there's 'In My Command', not exactly a hard rocker per se, but a song that cleverly alternates power-pop choruses with hellraising guitar passages, and the speedy, funky, Madchester-influenced 'Locked Out', with a particularly paranoid coda offering something tasty for the headbangers. And if you wanted something really heavy, there's always 'Black & White Boy', with easily the grungiest guitar part to ever come from these guys and mysterious lyrics whose protagonist is definitely not easy to decipher (some people have suggested it's actually a dog - could certainly be, at least it's a nice explanation that relieves the band of any possible racist/sexist accusations).

Finally, for those who just want straightahead, unassuming, Woodface-style power-pop, there's always songs like 'Distant Sun', although I can't say I'm a big fan. In comparison to almost everything else on here, 'Distant Sun' is surprisingly flat and predictable, kind of like late solo Paul McCartney if you know what I mean. For all their adult-contemporarishness, I'd much rather take 'Fingers Of Love' and 'Private Universe' over that song, as these two songs betray far more personality. Oh, and don't forget to check all the neat guitar textures on 'Private Universe' where it almost sounds like an Eno-enhanced pseudo-ambient synthesizer, successfully outpunching the real (boring, but maybe necessarily boring) synthesizers.

In short, even if Together Alone wasn't actually planned as a goodbye album, it works well as one, and if I might say so, it's a good thing it turned out to be one. From this point onwards, I could only see the band evolving in a Sting-like sort of way, towards atmospheres and exaggerated subtlety and thorough de-energizing and suchlike. Together Alone works the balance well, but I'm not sure they could have conserved the situation; the title track is really ominous in that way. My guess is that the band's next album would only be loved by those who'd already decided that Neil Finn is God and the mere sound of his voice should make you enter the Mountain Sermon mode already. Of course, I may be mistaken, and after all, I haven't heard anything Neil Finn released ever since, so I suppose I'd better just shut up now. This is a pretty damn good record anyway.


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