A Buyers Guide to Crowded House (1986-1996)

Few acts have ever managed the career trajectory that Crowded House managed to pull off during their initial decade-long run from 1986 to 1996. Their debut album did solid business in the USA with their debut album on the back of a pair of big hit singles, while they struggled to make much of an impact in Europe. The writing seemed to be on the wall when their second album struggled to meet the sales of their first, although Canada remained receptive, and they would always be huge in Australia and bandleader Neil Finn’s native New Zealand.

Then something odd happened, as their stock continued to fall in the USA, with 1991’s Woodface Crowded House suddenly gained commercial traction in Europe, particularly in the UK, something which would continue until the band split in 1996, with a well thought out compilation being a definitive way of bowing out and a reminder of what a truly great band they were, and the consistently brilliant quality of Finn’s songwriting.

Formed in 1985, Crowded House was formed by former Split Enz drummer Paul Hester, fellow Australian Nick Seymour on bass, and fellow Split Enz member, New Zealand’s Neil Finn, as guitarist, vocalist and the band’s main songwriter. Specialising in a pleasing pop rock hybrid which could equally be as infused with melancholy as it could be pure power pop, Finn had already proved in Split Enz that he was a top quality songwriter, and with Crowded House’s eponymous debut album, he had an audio shop window with which he could demonstrate his range.

From the opening “Mean to Me”, Crowded House sets out the band’s pop manifesto. Harder edge than the contemporary pop, especially with Hester’s driving drum work, yet still absolutely accessible and full of hooks, “Mean to Me” is one of those songs that is difficult to date when listened to in isolation. Actually, due to a combination of the band’s cohesive playing, Finn’s songwriting style and consistently complimentary production methods, that timelessness is a hallmark of all of Crowded House’s output, as it sounds like it could have been released at any point since the early 80s, as it just hasn’t aged at all.

Crowded House is a masterclass of demonstrating how to get the most durable pop value out of a debut album. “World Where You Live” and “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” deserved to be much bigger hits than they were, and have aged gracefully. “Don’t Dream it’s Over” was the breakout hit, a slab of mature melancholy pop, the quality of which cannot be denied and it remains one of the key points of Finn’s career over thirty years later. “Something So Strong” was the follow up hit, and quickly proved that Crowded House were going to be bigger than just one hit single.

Not that Crowded House was an album where the hit singles dominated, as the half dozen track not selected as singles had a sense of quality and heft about them. That said, the five singles are quickly despatched in the first six songs, so it was imperative that the other songs could carry the second half of the album, which they do to great effect, with “Hole in the River” having a slightly unsettling quality, while still effectively channeling a sense of yearning and still finding room for an opera singer.

“Can’t Carry On” is one of the few songs on this debut which sonically tethers itself to the 80s, but even then it’s an above average example of pop from the era, and certainly a cut above what 90% of acts appearing on MTV or Top of the Pops in 1986 were capable of. In many ways, that was the secret to Crowded House’s success, always be on terms with a wide range of other acts, but still carve out their own niche in a way that they simultaneously sound contemporary, yet unmistakably themselves.

On a basic level, Crowded House is an album of two halves, with the hits front loaded, and then everything else. For most acts that would equate to an uneven album which struggles to hold the listener’s attention, but that’s just not the case here, and that’s down to the band sounding fully committed to everything and giving Finn the very best platform for his songs.

With “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong” dragging Crowded House’s debut into the top 20 in the USA, the band seemed poised for great things. The fact that 1988’s Temple of Low Men struggled to make an impact on the charts reflects how success could be a very fleeting thing at the height of MTV, regardless of the quality of your material. Of course, it still troubled the top of the New Zealand and Australian album charts, and Canada remained receptive to more Crowded House, however the USA had already started moving on and Europe remained slow to wake up to the band’s charms.

All of this results in Temple of Low Men being the Crowded House album that gets overlooked. The one that got away even.

Listening to it now, there’s no reason why Temple of Low Men should be the runt of the litter when it comes to Crowded House’s first four albums. After all, Neil Finn’s songwriting remains of the highest quality, as demonstrated on opening single “I Feel Possessed” and particularly on the heart-string tugging “Into Temptation”.

First single “Better Be Home Soon” was released in July 1988, and was the biggest hit from the album, and Temple of Low Men’s closing track, with the final single “I Feel Possessed” being released eighteen months later in January 1990, which at least demonstrated that the record label had faith in Crowded House, even in the face of disappointing commercial performance. Six tracks out of the albums ten were chosen as singles, all of which had hit single potential, yet for whatever reason none of them made much of an impact on the two biggest music markets.

Once again the album cuts don’t exactly languish in the shadows of the singles. Both “Love This Life” and “Mansion in the Slums” are absolute belters of songs, with enough interesting twists and turns throughout to keep this listener interested thirty years later. Temple of Low Men is just one of those albums that almost slipped through the cracks, for no better reason than Crowded House’s other albums contained bigger hit singles, and the fact that their sales took off in Europe while interest in the USA continued to decline has a knock on effect on making Temple of Low Men looking less impressive when you look at the album and singles charts alone.

As it is Temple of Low Men has effectively become Crowded House’s hidden gem. Not as well known as the other three albums released during their first decade of chart action, it is one ripe for rediscovery, and anyone doing so will be pleased to realise that it is of a very similar quality to its more successful brethren.

A proposed collaboration between Neil Finn and his older brother, and fellow Split Enz veteran, Tim Finn, was slightly derailed when the record company rejected most of the material Neil had written for Crowded House’s third album. Back against the wall, Neil approached Tim to ask if some of the songs that they had written could be used on his band’s new album. Tim graciously agreed on the tongue-in-cheek proviso that he could join the band. Neil agreed to his older brother’s terms, and that resulted in Woodface, the album that saved Crowded House from the ongoing commercial plummet, and the one with the fewest songs that Neil Finn wrote alone.

That’s not the only thing that marks out Woodface as unique, as the addition of Tim Finn finds the brothers harmonising on the majority of songs that they wrote together, rather than Neil on primary vocals with Paul Hester and Nick Seymour on backing vocals.

The consensus seems to be that all of this would have been for nothing were it not for “Weather With You”, a song written y the Finn brothers that became a medium sized hit across Europe, but crucially a massive single in the UK. Oddly enough it was only a modest hit in Australia, who had been Crowded House’s biggest market for a a few years since the USA had lost interest in them. As compelling as “Weather With You” and it’s twisty acoustic riff were, the USA remained disinterested.

“Weather With You” is one of those songs which splits opinion, as it was overplayed at the time. For many non fans, “Weather With You” is the reason that they don’t like Crowded House. In retrospect the reason it was given as much airplay as it was, is simply because it is a stunning example of brilliant pop music, with a killer chorus, an irresistible melody and hooks, and as mentioned before, that twisty riff.

The thing is, that consensus ignores the fact that the commercial groundwork had already been laid by “Fall at Your Feet”, a Neil Finn penned number which had already hit the top 20 in the UK. Perhaps without this there may have been the perception that Neil needed Tim to help him pen a hit (despite the fact that “Don’t Dream it’s Over” had already proved that this wasn’t the case five years previously), but the fact that “Fall at Your Feet” hit the charts before the omnipresent “Weather With You” managed to bypass all these assumptions (and it’s a very fine pop song in its own right).

As good as the previous two Crowded House albums had been, Woodface lifts things to the next level with them. It’s arguably their masterpiece, and unarguably one of the best albums of the 90s. Five of its fourteen tracks were singles, and when your weakest single is the Andrew Lloyd Webber baiting “Chocolate Cake”, you know you’re on to a winner.

When listen to the nine songs on Woodface that were not chosen as singles, it’s obvious that they could have been sizeable hits in their own right, even the Paul Hester penned “Italian Plastic”, a rare solo songwriting credit for anyone in Crowded House outside of Neil Finn. The sheer consistency of Woodface is astounding, especially given its rather convoluted origins. It’s fourteen tracks of top class mature pop rock, and even its hidden track isn’t a waste of space, with “I’m Still Here” making the most of what would rapidly become a very tired trope of 90s albums.

Woodface propelled Crowded House on to charts across Europe, and their days in the commercial wilderness were over. That the band managed to do this after their initial work for the album was soundly rejected by their record company, and the fact that their primary songwriter was already working on a strong set of songs with his brother, who was happy for that work to be recorded by his brother’s band as long as he could be involved, all combines to give Woodface a sense of stars aligning and destiny being answered.

Of course it couldn’t last. Tim Finn departed midway through the leg of a UK tour, to be replaced by former Supertramp touring member Mark Hart. Regardless of this, the foundations of Crowded House’s future success were in place, and Neil and Tim Finn were rightly hailed as modern pop geniuses. Job done on all fronts.

Following up the pop perfection of Woodface must have been a formidable task for Neil Finn, especially following the departure of his older brother Tim, as it was their combined songwriting that had made their previous album the immense success it had proven to be.

That said, Crowded House were filled with renewed confidence going forward, as demonstrated in their willingness to experiment with sound and flashier production techniques, with Youth replacing Mitchell Froom in the producers chair for the first time in their career, and Mark Hart officially becoming the fourth man in the band in place of Tim Finn. With the band’s sound once again fleshed out, ethnic choirs appearing sporadically throughout, some of the songs sounding much more like out and out rock songs, and floaty vocals just floating for the sake of floating, Together Alone is arguably the band’s most diverse album, a point underlined by the two singles “Pineapple Head” – a melodious song in the tradition of Woodface, and “Locked Out” which sounds for all the world like a brilliant John Lennon out take from his “Cold Turkey” sessions.

Such diversity can make Together Alone sound a little uneven though, and you do get the impression that Crowded House were trying just a tiny bit too hard to move on from the sound and style that they had perfected on Woodface. While this desire to move on is to be applauded, on balance it wasn’t entirely necessary, as their new fans in Europe would have been happy with facsimiles of Woodface for the next few years. The fact that Crowded House didn’t rest on their laurels and were willing to gamble on their newfound fanbase sticking with them through a period of experimentation is laudable, and you have to admit, the songwriting on Together Alone is as strong as ever, and the more adventurous production had much more appeal to those who might have found Woodface a little too soft and pop orientated for their tastes.

If it had come at any other point in their career, Crowded House could have been accused of over-indulgence, but with their commercial rise, fall and subsequent resurrection, you can’t say that they hadn’t earned the opportunity to throw a curved ball. It almost worked to, as five of the seven (yup, seven!) singles from Together Alone were top thirty hits in the UK. Elsewhere, the singles perhaps fell short of commercial expectations, though the album hit the top thirty in various European markets, and once again troubled the top of the charts in Australia and New Zealand, with Canada once again remaining open to Crowded House’s charms.

While it lacked the consistency of Woodface, Together Alone, with its diversity of song craft, willingness to not just be another pop rock album and occasional world music textures, is a Crowded House album that stands up on its own merits and may be an album that could convert the unbelievers.

As previously mentioned, Together Alone did solid business in the wake of Woodface, and by the mid 90s Crowded House were one of the few bands who were a global concern that did not originate from Europe or North America, with a world tour only cementing their status as one of the biggest bands in the world.

It was a shame then when Paul Hester quit the band part-way through 1994 in the midst of an American tour. Always the band member least at home with travel and wanting to spend more time at home, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Hester quite, especially with the band’s continuing success and lengthier touring schedule. He would not replaced as a full member of the band, which reduced again to a trio, with Finn, Seymour and Hart eventually being joined by drummer Peter Jones for live dates.

1995 would see the eventual release of Finn, the much delayed album by Tim and Neil Finn, the material for which had originally been diverted into creating Woodface. A low-key gem of an album, opener “Only Talking Sense” was as good as anything on Woodface, but otherwise it lacked the commercial zing that the material originally penned for it had been overflowing with.

By mid 1996 Neil Finn announced that Crowded House were calling it a day, and to mark the occasion they would release a greatest hits album, and play one last concert on the steps of Sydney Opera House.

As greatest hits compilations go, 1996’s Recurring Dream is one of the finest examples ever released, although the addition of three newly recorded tracks with Paul Hester back in the fold means that it isn’t an easy pass for those that already have all four studio albums. That niggle aside, the three new tracks stand up aside the previously released material and result in one of the the absolute finest examples of a career encapsulating greatest hits releases.

Sure, Crowded House splitting was a sad day for guitar based pop music, but as Recurring Dream easily demonstrated, they remained a potent band to the very end. What strikes you about this compilation is it’s consistency. Simply based on the strength of the material offered here, it appears that Crowded House never released a bad single.

For those not wanting to splash out on all four studio albums, Recurring Dream is the perfect introduction to Crowded House. For those of us that were already established fans, those three pesky unreleased tracks which are as good as anything else they ever did. Often songs recorded when the demise of a band is in sight end up sounding tired and bitter, but that is far from the case here. Far too many bands drag out their career long after their enthusiasm has evaporated. Crowded House are one of the few who had the good sense to quit while they were still at the top.

Neil Finn would continue to carve out a formidable reputation as a top class songwriter by way of his solo career, and Mark Hart would return as a full member of the newly reformed Supertramp, while Seymour and Hester would have lower key careers.

And thus the Crowded House story ended until the sad news in 2005 that Paul Hester had taken his own life, with a touching Tribute paid by The Finn Brothers and a guesting Paul Hester at a gig at The Royal Albert Hall.

In subsequent years, Neil Finn and Nick Seymour would record under the Crowded House name, with the two original member being joined by a returning Mark Hart and new drummer Matt Sherrod, with two albums of new material being released, and obscure B-side being resurrected as a charity single for Save the Children in 2015.

Neil Finn continues to record as a solo artist, but his most recent musical venture may be his most unexpected yet, as he has apparently joined Fleetwood Mac along with former Heartbreaker Mike Campbell to replace Lindsey Buckingham.

Yeah, it’s fair to say that few of us saw that one coming…

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