When Neil Finn was writing most of the songs that fill the new Crowded House album, he had no idea exactly how they would be presented. Most likely they would comprise a solo album, his third in the 13 years since Crowded House called it quits.
But in 2005, after the suicide of CH drummer Paul Hester, Finn and his Housemate Nick Seymour found themselves in each other’s company and even collaborating in the studio and in concert on a Finn Brothers gig or two.
Crowded House’s songs were alive and well in Finn’s often exhilarating live shows, but the band was retired as far as he had been concerned. Seymour was no longer performing: He had returned to live in his native Dublin, surfing in the morning and producing bands in his studio in the evening.
“Those collaborations gathered momentum, making it feel more like a band,” Finn told Variety after giving a private performance for music supervisors at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe. “It made me less lonely at the end of the process (of songwriting). Maybe this should be a band, I thought.”
At the point at which the album made the transition from Finn solo to Crowded House, at least four tracks needed to be recorded and Finn went on a writing spree. “Once it became a Crowded House record, it upped the ante. We had to prepare a couple of songs that had been fringe dwellers. That (gave the sessions) a great sense of exuberance. It also gave (the album) a balance.”
The result is “Time on Earth,” which EMI is releasing today. It is the band’s fifth album, their first produced by Steve Lillywhite, who earned the producer of the year Grammy in 2005 for his work with U2, Jason Mraz and Razorlight.
Boasting guest performances by former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, whom Finn worked with during his solo days, drummer Joey Waronker, Neil’s son Liam and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, there are four tracks on the album featuring the quartet that will hit the road on Aug. 4 in Northampton, Mass. (In a distinctive twist, the two-disc vinyl version of “Time on Earth” will contain more bonus tracks than the digital version, which includes two).
Finn and Seymour spent two weeks in L.A. auditioning drummers to replace Hester. The man they picked, Beck’s drummer Matt Sherrod, knew fewer Crowded House songs than just anybody else who took a shot at the gig.
“Matt has a library of feels,” Seymour notes. “And he’s his own man — he’s no clone of Paul.”
For Finn, who also drafted guitarist-keyboardist Mark Hart to rejoin the band he was a member of toward the end, Sherrod fit within a grander vision of Crowded House.
“It wasn’t about just being a band, but being a band with a future,” Finn noted. “A band with a sense of itself.”
The show at the Hotel Cafe was staged primarily to familiarize the film and TV community with the new material (“Heaven That I’m Making,” first single “Don’t Stop Now,” “Nobody Wants To”) and provide a gentle reminder of the band’s classics “Fall At Your Feet,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over”). As a songwriter, Finn is particularly peerless in the field of literate, post-punk pop; he is a true original who draws on a unique combination of late period John Lennon, ’60s production values and the melancholy of female blues singers.
They released one of the pop-rock masterpieces of the ’90s, “Woodface,” an album that includes masterfully crafted pop songs such as “Weather With You,” “Four Seasons in One Day” and “There Goes God.” In retrospect, it’s a bit stunning that the band only registered two top 40 singles in the U.S. during their 1985-1994 run.
Evidence that Crowded House material has remarkable staying power was seen in the Sydney Green Earth concert that Crowded House headlined Saturday. Finn appeared overwhelmed as tens of thousands of concert-goers sang over him on a couple of their 11 songs for the event, especially “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
“We’re still finding out what we are,” Finn said after the Hotel Cafe gig, which was only their fourth performance together. “This has its own character, and we’re lucky enough that it feels right. There’s something about Crowded House that’s not Finn Brothers or (my solo work) that I can’t explain.”
Crowded House has 28 North American concerts booked between Aug. 4 and Sept. 14 in Austin. (Band performs at the Beacon Theater in New York on Aug. 8 and 9 and the Greek Theater in L.A. on Aug. 28). Band heads to Europe for 14 shows in the first three weeks of October and then to New Zealand and Australia for 11 concerts between Oct. 28 and Nov. 17. Ten shows in the U.K. close out the tour in November and December.
For Phil Gallo’s review of Crowded House’s “Time on Earth,” click here.
Need more? Check out the Set List for more Crowded House goodies.