What kind of profile do Neil Finn and co. boast? I fell in love with Crowded House the way Matos did with Marshall Crenshaw’s Field Day. For reasons I don’t know, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” experienced a revival in the fall of 1992. It was all over the radio, its stately gait, unforgettable guitar hook, and melancholy organ showing up the vulgarity of The Heights’ “How Do You Talk To An Angel” and Toad The Wet Fucking Sprocket. So many breakup songs, so little time, yet “Don’t Dream It’s Over” really sounds as good as the likes of Dave Marsh have claimed. Refusing to pin down the “it” that’s over, Finn as vocalist croons, holds back, and belts while Froom’s organ pushes and prods, as Nick Seymour’s bass and Finn’s guitar sketch the contours of the subtext they won’t reveal. If I ever scripted the perfect gay dance sequence in a high school prom movie, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” would soundtrack it. As a jaded chart watcher, I’m amazed that a song this subtle peaked at number two in the worst pop year of the decade.
(Here’s a peak at Crowded House’s live — and sartorial — prowess during this era)
I bought the 45 rpm single of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at a local megastore that sold them; this particular pressing had Crowded House’s only other US top ten single “Something So Strong” on the flipside, so, really, it was eight minutes of what Grant McLennan once called hope then strife. Besotted, I got the House’s eponymous 1986 debut, and after a hurried listen through “World Where You Live” and “Mean To Me” concluded that the hurdy-gurdy keyboard sound in which producer Mitchell Froom was just beginning to specialize and odd time signatures were exactly what I missed in college radio (AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s actually interesting review made the same observation…from the perspective of a college student in 1986!). A seventeen-year-old accommodating to adulthood whose knowledge of romantic despair hoodwinked him into assuming he knew something about bliss leaned very heavily on “Can’t Carry On” and “I Walk Away.” After playing the album repeatedly through December, I bought Temple of Low Men, whose diminishing returns (success sucks + no songs except the ones about how success sucks + our producer’s weird keyboard noises = second album) did little to dim my enthusiasm for Finn’s chops. He still gets little credit as a singer — something of Crenshaw’s way with playing with scales at will plus the hint of a self-mocking detachment. It’s only because of my discovery of the Go-Betweens, actually, that I’ve overlooked Finn’s considerable talent.
I had some acquaintance with Finn’s past: “I Got You,” the tune he wrote and sang for older brother Tim’s act Split Enz, still got a lot of airplay. Curiosity drove me to buy an Enz comp, regrettably. While I’m the person least susceptible to the shibboleths of punk, this band’s music struck me as suspect: beholden to the gimmick, musically and lyrically; garish; too many months in a leaky boat with fellow travelers like Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, and other fortysomethings so bewildered by the state of things that injecting wacky synths into three-minute songs counted as membership fees for a club whose decor was more familiar than they expected. Crowded House’s one album with Tim Finn Woodface served as a tonic: a homespun affair, with an air of burning oak in the fireplace. Nothing like it in either CH or Split Enz’s catalogue, just a collection of acoustic ballads which use Revolver as a starting-point and don’t look back (maybe I’ll write something about this album someday; it’s a lost minor classic).
A long introduction to Tim Finn’s Before & After, but I have to emphasize my reluctance to embrace him as little more than the usurped victim, the older brother whose above-average talent was too recessive to get noticed without the aforementioned gimmicks. B&A’s anachronistic sound is closer to 1987 than 1993: several people credited on keyboards, contributions from veterans like Richard Thompson (the Finn brothers are revered by bizzers, as their latter-day collaborations with Radiohead, Johnny Marr, the Dixie Chicks, and Eddie Vedder prove). No, this album reflects a studio-rock aesthetic closer to a John Hiatt effort, with the financial renumeration: I succumbed to a few critics at the time who praised T. Finn’s “classic” musicianship. The single and Thompson co-write “Persuasion” is actually the best song; its indelible acoustic hook and passive-aggressive charm distinguish it from the glop bordering it on either side. The rest is better sung than Hiatt could manage, but betrays a similar weakness for singer-songwriter tropes like walking-you-home that a Bonnie Raitt or, yeah, Marshall Crenshaw could transform into something that signifies.
Incidentally, this post concludes the first set of my Unspooled series. Please vote on the next bunch of cassettes unearthed from my stash. I apologize in advance for their white paunchitude; these all date from a time when I actively reached out for this sort of thing. Please vote.
Paul Simon – The Rhythm of the Saints
Duran Duran – Notorious
Lindsey Buckingham – Out of the Cradle
The Bangles – Different Light
Tom Petty – Into The Great White Open