Laboring as one of two guitarists hired to replace a dervish, Neil Finn may leave his Fleetwood Mac gig with a healthier pension plan than the mint he earned writing for Crowded House, Split Enz, and, I suspect, for ghosting on projects whose client IDs he’ll take to the grave.
This gig resulted in the first re-examination of Finn’s legacy. When the news was announced, Mac fans weren’t particularly upset: nothing against Finn, and so on. He’s not new to playing the scab. Hired by big bro Tim for his band Split Enz at the end of the seventies, the teenager wrote and played on “I Got You,” their first international hit. Others followed, evincing an increasing melodic sophistication (“One Step Ahead”). Years later he and colleagues Nick Seymour and Paul Hester moved to L.A., hooked up with comer Mitchell Froom, and recorded Crowded House’s eponymous debut. When the album took half a year to take off, his luck looked like it had run out. Then “Don’t Dream It’s Over” got airplay.
I rank their albums, omitting comps and their last studio album.
1. Woodface (1991)
A re-listen to “Chocolate Cake” two days ago inspired a list of the worst openers on otherwise good albums. Discard Paul Hester’s “Italian Plastic” and I can make a case for Crowded House’s third album as one of the its decade’s most pristine and literate examples of guitar pop Big brother Tim Finn’s tenure was notoriously fractious, yet he and Neil co-wrote “How Will You Go,” “Tall Trees” (prefer George Jones’ but who cares), and thematic statement “It’s Only Natural.” The standout is “Weather With You,” an ode to the kind of love that inspires men to walk around the room singing “Stormy Weather”; appreciate the vertiginous melodic changes, savor those Finn-tastic harmonies. The challenge accepted, Finn came up with “Fall At Your Feet” and “Whispers and Moans” by himself. “She Goes On” made a few CR-90s over the years. Their worst charting album in the United States became their international best-seller.
2. Crowded House (1986)
Finn has earned enough from “Don’t Dream It’s Over” royalties to buy a protective dome for Australasia, deservedly. Why this #2 mega hit works is a mystery: Finn strums a basic chord sequence for the sake of a scenario that, like Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” refuses to share its secrets, helped by a Mitchell Froom organ part rehearsed the previous year on Elvis Costello’s “I’ll Wear It Proudly.” Those final “hey now”s rank among my favorite spine-chilling moments. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is a Gary Stewart or Merle Haggard ballad recast for the High Reagan Era. The rest of the album boasts most unusual production for 1986 — vintage keyboards competing, uneasily, with horns, treated with echo (“Now We’re Getting Somewhere,” “Love You Til the Day You Die”). No wonder it took almost a year to reach its chart peak. “Can’t Carry On” and “I Walk Away” bring off their angst, “World Where You Live” its Hester-Seymour massed chanting, and “Something So Strong” is a worthy followup to “Don’t Dream…” Speaking of openers, how about “Mean to Me”?
3. Together Alone (1993)
Thanks to the Reality Bites soundtrack, a penal colony for pre-grunge dreck, Crowded House got a college hit with “Locked Out,” a whiplash rocker that Marshall Crenshaw might have triumphed with. Every album suffered from frenzied production; Together Alone lacks compensatory material. With Youth behind the boards, the result is an abandoned attempt to marry “Maori” tropes and arena rock dramatics. “Private Universe” succeeds in sounding as if listeners have intruded on a tryst, while “Fingers of Love” makes excellent use of reverb and layered harmonies.
4. Time on Earth (2007)
Only thirteen years since Together Alone, Finn reunited with Seymour and utility man Mark Hart, bolstered by Beck drummer Matt Sherrod, on their best sounding album. Steve Lillywhite eschews his trademark Meadowlands-in-your-living-room mix for a crispness that resists the roots rock blahs. Johnny Marr brings the chime to “Even a Child,” and Finn takes back “Silent House,” his donation to Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way. Just when you dream it’s over, though, Time on Earth unveils more tracks.
5. Temple of Low Men (1988)
Turned out that “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong” were flukes after all. Rushed out a year after those hits, Temple of Low Men is a sour thing, alternating between pinched and expansive, an example of the Rushed Second Album. “When You Come” is orgasm without foreplay, “I feel Possessed” closer to “I Feel Peeved,” and “Kill Eye” has Finn in Yell Mode, his least delightful. Yet from the abyss of received ideas emerge two keepers: “Never Be the Same” and “Better Be Home Soon,” the latter Finn’s attempt to best “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and almost succeeding.