by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
They’re not nearly as famous in the U.S. as they are internationally (though most music buffs would immediately recognize their biggest American radio hit, “Don’t Dream, It’s Over”), but the New Zealand pop combo Crowded House – in actuality, a splinter group of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s new-wave outfit Split Enz of “I Got You” fame – has been one of the more consistently solid album acts of the last thirty years, bandleader Neil Finn (who had written “I Got You” for Split Enz, bringing them their first big taste of international success) having evolved into one of the finest songwriters of his generation and penned many a perfect three-minute pop song that would make Lennon and McCartney proud. While the band would break up in 1996 after a remarkable run of four solid albums for Capitol Records, the band would reunite in 2007 following the untimely passing of original drummer Paul Hester and cut an additional two studio albums together that took nothing away from their original legacy and instead added quite a fair amount of new gems to their already-impressive catalogue. But let us first take you back to the very beginning and assess the albums one-by-one chronologically …
Crowded House (1986, Capitol)
The trio’s self-titled debut has the added distinction of containing both of the only Top 40 hits – both Top Ten hits, at that – the band would ever have on this side of the Atlantic. The more famous of the two is the achingly beautiful ballad “Don’t Dream, It’s Over,” which has been covered by everyone from Paul Young to Sixpence None the Richer, but even catchier is the underrated follow-up single, the sunny Beatlesque pop of “Something So Strong,” penned with producer Mitchell Froom and sporting a great guitar solo from Neil Finn. Nothing else on the disc quite reaches the sheer pop perfection of those two songs, but there are still plenty of worthwhile tunes rounding out the album, most notably the should-have-been-singles “Can’t Carry On” and “I Walk Away,” the electric-piano-driven “World Where You Live,” the brass-laden snarling rock of “Mean to Me,” and the fun swing of “Now We’re Getting Somewhere.”
Temple of Low Men (1988, Capitol)
It failed to reach the commercial heights of its predecessor and none of its singles made the Top 40, but the band’s sophomore outing might just be the most consistently strong album it ever made, even if there’s nothing here quite as commercially accessible as “Something So Strong” or “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” So why does this work better than the debut? Simply put, this just seems like a more fully-realized album piece, right down to its perfect track sequencing. The songs also seem a tad more artful this time out and without completely forgoing hooks to make them enticing, either, as is evident on the stabbing quirky pop of “Kill Eye,” the jazzy “Sister Madly” (a collaboration with the legendary Richard Thompson), the lush, gorgeous “Into Temptation,” and the intricate, wormy, haunting album opener “I Feel Possessed.” The album also closes in stunning fashion with the devastatingly pretty largely-acoustic ballad “Better Be Home Soon,” one of the finest tunes Neil Finn has ever written, for either Crowded House or Split Enz!
Woodface (1991, Capitol)
If Temple of Low Men isn’t the band’s finest hour, then this album is certainly it, and this is certainly the band’s most fun album, if simply for the new addition of Split Enz co-founder (and Neil Finn’s older brother) Tim Finn to the lineup. [Adding to the fun is the presence of several notable guests, including Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo (who provides accordion on “As Sure as I Am”) and former Beach Boys drummer Ricky Fataar, who plays on three cuts.] It’s always a joy to hear the two Finn brothers harmonize together, and they don’t disappoint here, though it certainly helps that the brothers – who co-wrote eight of the disc’s fourteen songs together – have brought an excellent set of songs to the table. The piano boogie of “Chocolate Cake” is deceptively catchy, the jangly “There Goes God” one of Finn’s wittiest sets of lyrics, and the weaving melody of “Four Seasons in One Day” impressive, while “It’s Only Natural” boasts a killer, harmony-laced chorus that would have made it perfect for the Fab Four’s Rubber Soul period. “Fall at Your Feet” might be Finn’s loveliest ballad to date, while the conga-laced breezy pop of “Weather with You” is the catchiest cut here and truly quintessential Finn-brothers material. The album’s biggest fault is that it’s simply too long, actually, containing too much unnecessary filler in its back half when the band simply could have followed “There Goes God” with the two excellent closing songs – the gentle beats of the charming “She Goes On” and the harmony-drenched ballad “How Will You Go” – to create a near-flawless ten-track disc.
Together Alone (1993, Capitol)
Tim Finn has departed the lineup after a one-off stint as band member on Woodface (though he cameos on backing vocals on two numbers, and fellow Split Enz alumni Noel Crombie and Eddie Rayner make cameos on the disc as well), but the band remains a quartet, thanks to the new addition of former Supertramp member Mark Hart to the lineup. The album is noticeably more experimental and less commercial than the previous three outings, though, which means that the songs aren’t nearly quite so immediately catchy, though some of them still sink in with time, namely “Fingers of Love,” the slightly folk-tinged “Pineapple Head,” the raucous “Locked Out,” the percussive “Private Universe,” and the harmony-washed “Distant Sun.” This would turn out to be the final proper studio album from the original lineup of Neil, Nick, and Paul, and as a farewell disc, it’s not at all a bad way to go out, even if one wishes the melodies were slightly stronger.
Afterglow (1999, Capitol)
Largely comprised of songs from the earliest sessions for Woodface, this package isn’t technically a disc of new material from the band but a posthumous collection of previously unreleased songs. So if a lot of these songs sound like leftovers … well, they are. But even Crowded House leftovers are still better than many other artists’ best material, and a small handful of these songs are so surprisingly great that it’s a bit befuddling how they didn’t get used before, particularly the propulsive jangly pop of “Recurring Dream” (easily the most danceable song the band has ever released, and arguably the catchiest song the band has released since “Weather with You”), the swinging “Sacred Cow,” the piano rock of “Left Hand,” and the muscular “Dr. Livingston.” It’s not as quintessential a purchase as the four proper studio albums that preceded it, but as an archival disc of previously unreleased material, it’s surprisingly good for more than just a curious spin or two, and the best cuts here stand up nicely next to the best material from Woodface and Together Alone, even if this is a slightly spottier disc than the latter overall.
Time on Earth (2007, ATO)
After an eleven-year break, the band unexpectedly reconvenes for a reunion disc. Not everyone is here – former drummer Paul Hester sadly took his life just two years prior to the release of the album and is replaced by Matt Sherrod – but Nick Seymour and Mark Hart are back alongside Neil Finn, and the band surprisingly sounds just as great as ever. Perhaps because of the passing of their friend and former bandmate, the mood of the album is noticeably more somber than your average Crowded House album, and there’s not a whole lot of rock-oriented material here, but Finn is back in first-rate shape as a songwriter, and this is a stunning set of songs. Most of the attention from critics was paid to Finn’s own version of “Silent House,” which he had originally co-written with the Dixie Chicks for their album Taking the Long Way. While it’s true his version is just as stirring, if not even superior, there are arguably even stronger songs here, including “Even a Child” (co-written with the legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr), “Heaven That I’m Making,” the lovely album openers “Nobody Wants To” and “Don’t Stop Now,” the upbeat singalong of “She Called Up,” and the lyrical brilliance of “English Trees.” The catchiest and most breathtaking track of all here, however, is the haunting, minor-key up-tempo piano-driven pop of “Walked Her Way Down,” which sounds exactly like the kind of pop song John Lennon might be writing today if he were still alive and sounds like a cross between the music Lennon was making just before he passed away (and would be divided between Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey) and the moody pop of his son Julian’s solo debut Valotte. Why the song was not released as a single, I have absolutely no idea, because it’s arguably the catchiest song Neil has penned since “Weather with You.” There might not be any radio hits here, but all the same, this album is a must-own for fans of Neil Finn.
Intriguer (2010, Fantasy)
The band’s lineup from the last album remains intact here, and this isn’t all that different an album in terms of sound or style, either, thankfully. Unfortunately, the set of songs doesn’t quite have the same magic as the set that Finn came up with for Time on Earth, and the disc could have benefitted from another up-tempo song or two to keep the album from feeling too somber, so this disc falls just a little short of having the same appeal of its predecessor. Still, no Crowded House or Neil Finn album is without its share of good songs, and this album nonetheless has enough strong moments to make it worth owning, namely the pounding atmospherics of “Saturday Sun,” the lovely harmonies of “Either Side of the World,” the haunting “Archer’s Arrows,” and, best of all, the catchy and Beatlesque “Twice If You’re Lucky,” which is remarkable not just for the brilliance of its melody and lyric but the fact that Neil Finn somehow came up with it before Noel Gallagher could!
It arrived too early in the band’s career to include material from their two fine reunion efforts of the new millennium, but the 1996 Capitol package Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House is still the finest anthology of the band, including nearly all of the critical singles (“Chocolate Cake” is the only major omission of note, though it would have been nice to also have the lesser hits “Sister Madly” and “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” included as well) and tacking on three new excellent studio recordings, “Not the Girl You Think You Are,” “Everything Is Good for You,” and best of all, the alluring “Instinct.” There is also a more career-encompassing single-disc anthology available, the 2010 package The Very, Very Best of Crowded House, that includes two songs from Time on Earth (though no “Walked Her Way Down,” unfortunately), but it leaves off too many memorable singles from the Capitol era like “World Where You Live,” “Into Temptation,” and most egregiously of all, “I Feel Possessed,” to be considered definitive, so stick with Recurring Dream.
The title for the band’s best live album would have to go to the 1996 double-disc Farewell to the World, which documents the final show from the original lineup of the band with Paul Hester still intact as drummer. It’s a pretty fun and lively show, and Tim Finn re-joins the band for the night to make the occasion all the more spirited. It’s certainly not a crucial purchase, and the studio albums are much more essential, but it has plenty of charm, and the Sydney crowd clearly adores the band and is thrilled to be part of the historic night for the band.