Sunday, August 15, 2010

Crowded House — Intriguer

Before I get fully into the latest Crowded House album Intriguer, I’d like to go back to their previous album Time On Earth and its significance. Although the band had reunited for the sporadic one off performance since their 1994 disbanding, Time On Earth yielded a proper new album of brand new material and dang near a world tour. Of the band’s first four proper albums in their initial run, one could split them down the middle in terms of what mood they evoked: Beatles style resonating pop for the new wave era (the self-titled debut and Woodface) and then a brand of lush introspective pop that bordered on an almost dark melancholy, all the while remembering a hook’s importance (Temple of Low Men and arguably the band’s unheralded masterpiece Together Alone).

When the news of founding member Paul Hester’s suicide hit the world in 2005, it seemed a sure sign that Crowded House would be done for good. But Neil Finn, perhaps feeling an allegiance to his departed friend, found a worthy replacement and decided to resurrect the band. In the shadow of Hester’s death, it seemed like an expectedly meditative album of heartfelt pop songs when it was released in 2007; a fitting sendoff for a friend whose exit was understandably difficult. It could have been seen as an album whose tone was pre-determined, and thus, could not really be considered a dependable indication of what the next Crowded House album would sound like when a forthcoming record was announced earlier this year.

Besides the fact that Time On Earth has aged fantastically over the last few years, Intriguer only proves that it was no fluke and that the melancholy-tinged introspective pop direction of Together Alone was the band’s true calling all along. The big difference with Intriguer is that the songs have a very content feeling to them. But Neil Finn still sounds relatively unsure of what his future holds. Where in the past this frightened him and perhaps caused him to put up a defensive wall, Intriguer finds him accepting mid-life gracefully and looking forward to what’s in store.

In some ways, Intriguer is the most rockin’ Crowded House album yet, but simultaneously, it could also be argued that it’s their prettiest. From the very first track, it becomes clear that this is without question the most straightforward, no nonsense presentation of any of their albums. ‘Saturday Sun’ presents a chunky, bass-driven backbone that one might easily mistake for an intro vamp to a song by a band with a much edgier reputation than Crowded House. The song, despite its raw and rockin’ foundation, morphs into something altogether bigger in scope. Through the initial verse, there’s a sense of calm restraint, but it all explodes into the chorus and despite the song’s minor tone, it’s a triumphant and rewarding release of energy.

Continuing the trend is the Fender Rhodes electric piano laden ‘Archer’s Arrows’ which also features quite possibly the group’s most anthemic chorus ever. Completing one of the most awesome one-two opening punches I can recall from recent times, ‘Archer’s Arrows’ is the kind of classic-sounding Crowded House composition filtered through a modest contemporary presentation that makes these newer Crowded House albums sound ultimately very timeless.

Although it’s not in the physical middle of the tracklist, the spiritual centerpiece and album highlight is the pulsing, nearly ethereal four to the floor stomp ‘Either Side of the World.’ Without that percussive stomp underneath it all, it would simply be a curiosity of effects pedals and pretty piano accents, but with that firm grounding, it turns the song inside out. What should be a meditative, soothing tone poem gets turned into a swelling, nearly dancefloor-friendly mini epic. The subject and mood of the song is something along the lines of ‘Private Universe, part two.’ And, as 'Private Universe' is probably my favorite song by the band because of its topic and mood, this is a sequel that does not better its predecessor, but takes a complete opposite (and rewarding) turn away from the original. This is the sort of song I listen to music for. Brilliant.

And, before we go any further, I know what you're thinking: "Four stars again? Does he dislike anything?" And let me answer that with the rest of the review...

Well, let's say that the second half of the album is good. But the three big highlights appear within the first four tracks of the album. After that, things settle down into the MOR mood that one may have expected all along from a later day Crowded House album. Things kick off strong enough with the Neil Young-ish 'Falling Dove,' which is awesome enough to blend from a hypnotic opening section into a much more rockin' middle section and then back again, building a tension for the rest of the tune leaving the listener wondering if the song will erupt again.

But after that, you have songs like 'Isolation,' 'Twice If You're Lucky' and 'Even If,' which are all pleasant enough on the ears and far from being bad songs, but they do seem a little safe in the shadow of the preceding highlights. Kind of telling about the strength of this album that a nice little rocker like 'Inside Out' could be considered second tier. Closing with 'Elephants' —one of Neil's best ballads in a long time— was a good move. It will remind longtime fans of the diversity of exquisite pop that made them love the band in the first place. And it's a just a good song.

Overall, Intriguer may just the most representative Crowded House album yet. It does have a bit of a mature, serious tone to it, but it's not out of self-obsession. It's a resonating piece of pure, honest and fun pop from a group whose reputation was built on the stuff. At this point, the Neil Finn that sang 'Don't Dream it's Over' is long gone, but a listen today reveals an even greater relevance than ever. Almost as if the guy channeled his future self and, now that enough time has passed, he can bang out one of those world-wise pieces of universal likability with surprisingly little effort, but simultaneously surprising quality.

As long as they keep making records this good, let the Crowded House reunion be permanent this time.


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