Friday, March 30, 2007

Welcome Back, Crowded House

The world is once again blessed with the appearance of legendary pop-rock combo Crowded House, with their terrific, timeless pop nuggets and a veritable musical legacy of superb songcraft and memorable melodies. Yes, your favourite Antipodean pop institution is more or less back in business, with a date pencilled in for the upcoming Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, appearing on April 29, and the promise of an extensive tour to follow, and more importantly, a new album in the works.

So, to commemorate such an historic event, it would seem appropriate to briefly check out each of the four official studio albums Crowded House crafted in their initial decade-long life span:

Drawing from the more accessible aspects of skewed new wave geniuses Split Enz (the immediate predecessors to Crowded House), their eponymous debut (six-times platinum in Australia) is chockfull of immediately accessible, friendlily effulgent pop gems that bore just a hint of darkness. The stately yet bittersweet "Don’t Dream It’s Over" is the most obvious candidate for best-known Crowded House song, but "Something So Strong" is also a strong contender, an optimistic pop blast noteworthy for its seamless approximation of mid-period Beatles guitar hooks. Elsewhere, "Mean to Me" and "World Where You Live" are sparkling, radio-ready singles that should have made bigger dents on the charts, while the slightly morbid "Hole in the River" is Neil Finn at his storytelling best.

The intimations of moodiness hinted at on the first album are warily trotted out into the spotlight on this sophomore endeavour. Opening track "I Feel Possessed" sets the mood perfectly, an acerbic, slightly leftfield number that is built from a series of minor keys, a first for the band. Meanwhile, the claustrophobic, chilling "Into Temptation" (arguably Finn at his most personal) is a too-intimate anecdote of an extramarital affair, and the rollicking "Sister Madly" is a desperately brisk rockabilly pastiche. However, the best is saved for last: the quietly emotional "Better Be Home Soon": a regal, country-influenced ballad that is tinted with cautiously optimistic hope.

The shadows left over from "Temple of Low Men" were hurriedly dispelled for this third record, a bright and brilliant reinstatement of the Crowded House hummable-melody aesthetic. The provisional inclusion of Split Enz leader and Neil’s older sibling Tim Finn for some songwriting and guitar duties is a stroke of genius, given his penchant for catchy, tasteful pop-rock arrangements. The opening "Chocolate Cake" might be a rather unwise choice for a lead single, given its thinly veiled verbal assaults on the vagaries of American popular culture, but following hits like "It’s Only Natural" and "Fall at Your Feet" are gorgeous pop songs that contain no lyrical hang-ups. The sunny, summery "Weather With You" is another contender for archetypal Crowded House song, while the baroque-informed ballad "Four Seasons in One Day" has more or less been accepted as Melbourne’s (Finn’s adopted home) unofficial theme song.

The airbrushed perfection of the preceding three albums is exchanged for a darker, more atmospheric ambience on this fourth effort, arguably the group’s most inspired work. The addition of second guitarist Mark Hart introduces a harder, rockier edge to the band’s basic blueprint. Thoroughly eclectic and esoteric in nature, "Together Alone" takes in previously unexplored musical accents like indigenous Polynesian chanting, quasi-ambient patterns, freeform log drumming and Celtic folk. It did spawn several extraordinary, dreamy singles, like the luminous, classicist-Crowded House pop jewel "Distant Sun", the echoing, cabalistic "Fingers of Love" (featuring some of Finn's most eloquent and articulate guitar work to date), and the densely packed, remarkably polyrhythmic "Private Universe". The title track is a seamless, inspired amalgamation of a traditional Maori choir, a full-scale brass band and Crowded House’s effervescent pop sensibilities.


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