I’d lost my way with Crowded House sometime ago. That wee imperial run they went on, from Temple Of Low Men via Woodface and Together Alone to their Greatest Hits compilation, would have been enough to sate the keenest of appetites for most things Finn. Add in the eponymously-titled album(s?) released by Neil and Tim in the late ’90s plus Neil’s solo material and the Seven Worlds Collide project in the noughties and suddenly you’d be knee deep in wafting, rolling melodies and jetstream harmonies wrapped around gently scuffed acoustic guitars and chiming, jangling electric six strings sent down from the musical gods above. There’s never ever enough time in the day to get through it all and so these ears wandered off in search of new bands and new sounds when they hadn’t fully soaked in the Finn brothers’ stuff that was already right in front of me. Which was, in hindsight, a bit daft. They’ll never be hip, but where the Finn name is attached, there’s usually something happening.
I took a chance last week on Crowded House’s latest album, Dreamers Are Waiting. I say ‘latest’, but it’s been out a year already. Not for nothing do I have ‘Outdated Music For Outdated People’ at the top of this blog. So, I’m slow to catch up, but for just £6 via the devil’s online supermarket (next day delivery, a mountain of packaging) I couldn’t pass it up, no matter how many independent shops it may close or rainforests it may fell or zero hours contracts it took to get it to me. Yeah. When it comes to the price of music, I have pretty lousy double standards.
Crowded House is a real family affair these days. There’s no Tim Finn, but ever-present bass player Nick Seymour is still involved, alongside Neil and his two sons Liam and Elroy, augmented now and again by Neil’s wife Sharon and the well-travelled Mitchell Froom. The songs on Dreamers Are Waiting are well crafted and carefully considered, the production rich and vivid. It’s a good album.
The opening track is a real beauty, a real scene-setter of what promises to follow. It’s not a wham-bam opener, over and out in a breathless rush of flailing cymbals and crashing feedback. Crowded House don’t go for that. What they do go for though is control and restraint. Bad Times Good is a quietly confident, gently unravelling masterpiece.
Crowded House – Bad Times Good
With breathy Californian harmonies wafted in from Neil Finn’s stint in Fleetwood Mac and a heavy borrowing of Don’t Fear The Reaper’s multi-tracked, multi-stacked backing vocals, the album opener has all the hallmarks of soft rock greatness. It’s absolutely vintage Crowded House; from the understated acoustic opening and muted percussion to its gently tumbling piano/guitar arpeggios and close-miked vocals – and it has you hooked from the off.
Neil Finn is a tease though. He has unlimited melody the way some of us listeners might have limited patience, but still, he doesn’t give it all up at once. We’ll discuss the music in a second, but first we must acknowledge one of the finest voices in popular music. There’s an unexplainable tone to his voice that gets me right there. Very few vocalists have this impact on me – most of my favourites don’t – but Neil Finn is one of them. An undeniably brilliant vocalist. And melodicist. And writer.
The music that carries Bad Times Good threatens to fly off on a couple of well-placed chiming chords midway through the first verse – ‘Make a good time last/Before we choose a path, let’s spend the night at Los Campaneros please,’ – but Finn pulls it back – ‘through the doorways of the past‘ – you’re not ready for it yet, he thinks, and the tune settles in again. Those chiming, not-quite-expected chords, sometimes the harbingers of deadly night, other times the chink of light in a door half ajar are, it dawns, something of a Finn trademark. Not The Girl You Think You Are…Nails In My Feet…Into Temptation...Distant Sun (great performance from the Tonight Show here) all benefit through the principal songwriter’s way with a well-chosen chord that provides the stepping stone to melodies to die for.
‘Hey! Everybody wants to make a bad time good.’
Something is nagging at me by the second verse. It’s the vocals! They’re wonderful! And wonderfully close to Gerry Love’s more pastoral deliveries on those late-era Teenage Fanclub albums. No bad thing, obviously, and when married to those hazy, lazy Blue Oyster Cult heeeeyyys gives us a track that anyone with an addiction to ’60s-influenced sunshine pop and an unravelling melody should enjoy playing multiple times in a row and never tire from. Trust me on that.
As the second verse winds its way to an end, and the bass player begins a frugging run up the frets, the reins come off and we’re suddenly soaring. ‘It’s a challenge for the impresario,’ sings Neil, and the band behind him climbs upwards and outwards on a beautiful chord progression, led by understated and underscored strings – where did they come from?!? – subtle and keening, leading us to the key moment that opens the song into technicolour.
When they hit the sunshine chord – ‘Whether sunlight or shadow falls on me‘ – and the tune opens as wide as the Clyde- ‘You won’t come out….’ – aw man! It doesn’t get better than this! Neil Finn’s vocals are now flirting with that falsetto that he can do – the one you’ve tried and failed at since first hearing Weather With You – and a song that once showed real promise now really delivers and then some.
There’s an acoustic drop out, before perfectly executed ‘Heeeeyyy!‘ AOR vocals breathe their way back in, blowing the track to its slow-winding, meandering end. The rest of the album has a lot to live up to. It doesn’t quite get there, to be honest, but as far as opening tracks go, you’ll not hear a better one this year.