CD Review of Crowded House by Woodface

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starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Capitol
Released: 2006
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It’s ironic that Crowded House first came about because Neil Finn wanted to get out from beneath the shadow of his brother, Tim…and, yet, the Crowded House album which is often cited as the best of their oeuvre is the one where Tim briefly joined the band.

Crowded House’s self-titled debut instantly put them on the map in the U.S., thanks to the huge singles “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong,” but the follow-up, Temple of Low Men, produced underwhelming returns. When word got out that the band’s third album would find Neil and Tim teaming up for the first time since their days together in Split Enz, enthusiasm among fans was running high…and Crowded House did not disappoint.

Neil Finn has always had a way with a love song, as has his brother, but it’s clear that when the siblings work together, they bring out the best in each other, whether co-writing or writing independently of each other; in fact, some have called Tim the McCartney to Neil’s Lennon. On Woodface, the styles explored are wide and varied. There are the soaring choruses of “It’s Only Natural” and “Whispers and Moans,” the gentle beauty of “Four Seasons in One Day,” the almost-jazzy “All I Ask,” and even the straight-ahead rock of “Tall Trees.” And if the impeccable harmonies of “Fall At Your Feet” weren’t enough, most lyricists would kill to write a middle eight like, “The finger of blame has turned upon itself / And I’m more than willing to offer myself / Do you want my presence or need my help? / Who knows where that might lead?

Not to speak ill of the dead, but, in all honesty, Woodface would probably be a 5-star album if it wasn’t for the late Paul Hester’s contribution, “Italian Plastic.” Ever since the Beatles started throwing Ringo a bone by letting him sing at least one number per album, there’s been a shocking lack of quality control on pop records, and this, sadly, is no exception. In such stellar company, however, after several spins, even the silliness of lines like “When you wake up with me / I’ll be your glass of water,” reveal their charms.

As far as the marketing of the album went, however, whoever selected “Chocolate Cake” to be the first single in the US clearly never got beyond seeing the title and, a la Homer Simpson, going, “Mmmmmmm…cake.” At the very least, they certainly never listened to the song; otherwise, it’s inconceivable that they would’ve believed in the chart success of a song which includes the lines, “The excess of fat on your American bones / Will cushion the impact as you sink like a stone.” (It did, notably, make it to #2 on the college charts…but, then, everyone knows them smart kids with all their fancy book learnin’ ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of Democrats.) The only song that might’ve done worse as a single here in the States is “There Goes God,” which, while clearly intended as an amusing trifle, probably still would’ve been banned in the Bible belt for its portrait of an almighty deity who “can’t stand Beezelbub cos he looks so good in black.”

Fortunately, the other two songs which actually were released as singles – “Fall At Your Feet” and “Weather with You” – did marginally better, i.e. they actually charted on the Billboard Top 100, but no top-40 singles could be managed. In the UK, however, “Weather with You” made it to #7, and it turned Crowded House into a chart force to be reckoned with over the pond, resulting in 9 more hits in the top 30 before the band’s demise in 1996.

It’s a shame that American musical history will mostly remember Crowded House for their debut; in a Favorite Album poll amongst the band’s fans, Woodface “wood” likely score higher.

~Will Harris