The members of Crowded House found themselves in 1989 toiling away on the follow up to their sophomore album Temple Of Low Men. In the period leading up to recording the band would add to the group Neil’s brother Tim, an experienced performer and one of the founders of the group Split Enz. In many ways, this third album, eventually titled Woodface, was a test set by their record company. Their record label Capitol wanted to see if the band could return to the level of popularity they had attained with their self-titled debut release.
The debut had performed extraordinarily well and had been embraced by many in the US and abroad. Unfortunately, Woodface garnered the exact opposite reaction as Americans were at best unresponsive to the band’s third release. The spectacular album ended up dismissed by the American public at large, mostly due to a bad sequencing decision made by the band. Perversely, Woodface would give Crowded House greater success and recognition on the European stage that they had received prior to the album. The contrast was sharp, where the album stalled in the US at #83; in the UK it scored the band’s their first top 10 and did well throughout Europe.
Crowded House was formed by New Zealander and former Split Enz member Neil Finn with Australians; drummer Paul Hester, and bassist Nick Seymour. The trio were veteran Antipode musicians who had been in various bands. Neil was already an adept songwriter, gaining notice for his Split Enz penned song, “I Got You” among many others. Neil’s Split Enz songs displayed the first glimpses of Finn’s storied songwriting abilities. Based on Finn’s skills the unnamed band secured a record contract with Capitol. When the band name “Mullane’s” was rejected by Capitol, Crowded House named themselves for the cramped quarters they inhabited in West Hollywood.
Once signed and named, Capitol records seemed to forget the trio and were woeful in their lack of backing the band and failed to see their potential. Crowded House’s self-named debut was released to little fanfare. Surprisingly the song “Don’t Dream It’s Over” suddenly became an international hit and scored a #2 on US Billboard charts. The song would catapult the band onto another level of recognition. The debut recording would score them ARIA music award’s “Best New Talent Award”, “Song of the Year” and “Best Video Award”. They would also snag an MTV VMA “Best New Artist Award”. They attracted many fans with their gorgeous melodies and unmistakable trademark Finn melancholy. The members of Crowded House would always be the first to say they were never a teenage pop band. Their music was instead charming intelligent pop with mature and literate lyrics and just the right amount of production in the accompaniment.
The album proceeding Woodface the brilliant but woefully underappreciated 1988 release Temple of Low Men, proved to not be as popular as the debut. It contained more introspective melancholy and a less pop sound. Even with Capitol finally giving it the promotion it deserved the album barely reached into the US top 40. This resulted in increased pressure on the band to knock it out of the park on the third release.
Woodface went through a challenging and unusual development process. It began as the band was touring Temple of Low Men, during which time Neil Finn started working with his brother on a Finn Brothers album project. Neil with Hester and Seymour had thought they had finished writing their follow up to Temple of Low Men when Capitol rejected most of the songs. Neil asked Tim if he could use some of their co-written songs on Woodface. Tim agreed and jokingly said on the condition he could join the band, thus Tim became a full member of the band. Eventually, eight tracks would appear on Woodface that were co-written by the Finn brothers. Neil would provide five more tracks he wrote alone, and Paul Hester would write two tracks including the hidden track “I’m Still Here.” The album would be co-produced with veteran Crowded House producer Mitchell Froom with Neil Finn and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. It would produce the singles; “Chocolate Cake, Fall at Your Feet, Weather With You, Four Seasons in One Day and It’s Only Natural.”
The band would suffer a serious setback that proved unrecoverable in America due to the band’s insistence that “Chocolate Cake” be the first single off the album. This happened over the objections of management and the record company who just this one time ended up being correct and it proved to be the band’s undoing in the US. American listeners disliked the song they saw as a mean spirited attack on American culture and unfortunately dismissed the rest of the noteworthy album. American program directors never got past the first song. Years later many including the band members would wonder what would have happened had those listeners and program directors jumped to the second track, It’s Only Natural. What the band saw as a jokey surreal dance track in “Chocolate Cake” went over like a lead balloon. It was a strange unwise move for a band whose members were typically very astute.
But for the stumble out of the gate, Woodface is the strongest collection of songs put out by Crowded House on one release. Taking that fact into consideration, Woodface is overdue for a well-deserved dusting off and re-examination. What the band produced on Woodface was transcendent pure pop, where they produced numerous three-minute melodic miracles. The band created lyrical songs that were in keeping with their desire to follow the musical whimsy which was woven into their DNA. The album displayed Neil and Tim’s fantastic songwriting abilities. It also emphasized Neil’s knack for crafting high-quality songs that combined meticulously crafted irresistible melodies and lyrical details.
Critics have always known and credited Neil with the ability to write lyrics that set the band apart from the rest, but on Woodface he exceeded himself. Thematically and lyrically the material soared above what any counterparts had on offer. Finn all the while provided beautiful melodies and memorable choruses that addressed happiness as real but ephemeral, and love songs set on their head with thinly veiled biting realism. The resulting verdict is that if not for the misfiring of the first track Woodface comes very closing to being a Crowded House masterwork.
In considering the album, a fair question to ask is what was really wrong with the song “Chocolate Cake”? True it was a departure from the more familiar Crowded House sound. Additionally, as an American, I painfully recognized the arrow hit its mark. The track called out American culture for its tendency towards loving the ridiculous over the sublime and the inane obsession with the low brow. The song took to task all of western society for its fascination with brief “Andy Warhol” fame and the lowest common denominator. The Finns almost prophetically envision the future filled with the Kardashians and Reality TV; portraying society as racing down the road to hell on a path paved with over the top cultural fads and the tawdry. It was heavy weather for pop listeners and probably not the best way to begin an album.
An additional factor that knocked US listeners back on their heels was that the band who had always been presented as charming suddenly on the song became snarky. The track sonically was forceful and has a sly guitar and great bass with a wonky intro ragtime piano. It is not the terrible track it is reputed to be, with time and distance it is actually a song with great insight.
The song in hindsight that many agree should have begun the album “Its Only Natural” has that familiar beloved Maori strum guitar. Even better was the beautiful harmonizing between the Finn brothers. It is a lovely shimmering song with a country twang that Tim introduced to liven up Crowded House’s sound. The lyrics speak to human nature and the way everyone wants things their way. “…and we don’t even have to try”. Everyone wants to be on the top of the heap without it being difficult.
The splendid “Fall at Your Feet” is a sublime song. It is the perfect bridge from the brooding Temple of Low Men, taking the mood and instrumentation and shaping it into something enthralling. The song overcomes one of the biggest obstacles that Crowded House had always faced; which is that the vocals and lyrics are so strong that the stellar musicality of their work gets overlooked, everything on this track is in perfect balance. The keyboards are bell-like and the gentle touch to the production is spot on. The theme is an examination of the hills and valleys of relationships. Displaying the tangled emotions of a long term love; “Whenever I fall at your feet you and you let your tears rain down on me.” It is the fallout after an inevitable fight, “…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.” This song contains some of Neil Finn’s most beautiful vocals.
From that introspective personal song, the band changed gears with “Tall Trees” a song that was more in Tim Finn’s wheelhouse and harkened back to the Split Enz sound. It is a bouncy pop concoction. Paul Hester provides some noteworthy drumming and the song proved that Crowded House didn’t only do mid-tempo ballads. This song was grist for their live shows which were wild reeling affairs.
The hits kept coming with the fantastic “Weather With You” which had the classic Crowded House signature guitar and a grand chorus. The catchy “sing-along” chorus was just one example on the album of the songwriting mastery of the Finn bros., “Everywhere you go you always take the weather with you.” Few songs are so beautifully enjoyable with glorious harmonies on display that drive you to sing along.
“Whispers and Moans” has a funkier feeling and a floating vocal that make it very special, of note, was the great wah guitar and bass with a nuanced percussion. The song builds and builds to the spectacular chorus; “then I wake up in your room, share one piece of your life when tomorrow comes we may not be here at all without your whispers and moans.” The soaring funky blend of great horns goes well with Neil’s scat vocal at the end of the song.
My all-time favourite Crowded House song, “Four Seasons in One Day” is songwriting perfection. It is a stunning combination of musical beauty and cynical reality written into a song. The mood is built with the soft jazz drum so perfectly executed by Hester and the lovely piano with organ and mandolin. The song takes the listener through the changeable seasons which reflect how sudden life changes. It examines how we struggle through the bad for the good and is clearly expressed by the lyric; “Smiling as the shit comes down, you can tell a man from what he has to say, everything gets turned around and I will risk my neck again, you can take me where you will, up the creek and through the mill, like all the things you can’t explain, like four seasons in one day.” Pragmatism has never been so beautifully expressed. Four Seasons is a song that catches you and doesn’t let go.
“There Goes God” puts on display the Finn Bros wry observational skills; the theme for the tune being religion and belief. The song examined their doubts about their belief and the desire to believe. The song goes on to aver that ability to believe is undermined by supposed people of faith complicating simple tenets of faith with the ridiculous. The ridiculous best displayed by the stated lyric ”Don’t look now but there goes God in his sexy pants and his sausage dog.” The lyrics took to task those who think God has to be made hip to be relevant. Some thought the track was an attack on religion but in many ways, it was an attempt to understand and give clarity to the thought that belief doesn’t necessitate all the extraneous trappings and arguments. Here again, Hester makes a blushingly great addition with his percussion offerings.
“Fame Is” was a short and sweet track that examined humanity’s desire for fame. It also described the phenomena of how people change when they attain fame. “All I Ask” was a lush and beautiful crooner of a ballad. The jazz-infused big band approach was arresting. It was a song where Tim Finn takes the lead vocal and declared what he wants from life; “All I ask is to live each moment free from the last.” It is an amazing song with jaw-dropping harmonies that have to be heard to be believed. “As Sure As I Am” followed along the same train of thought as “All I Ask” with a lovely waltz-like rhythm. It has a captivating cascading accompaniment as it stated the willingness to live with the choices and take the consequences of decisions made along life’s journey. The ethos of the song stated simply is; “I could not care less what might go wrong, and I’m as happy as sin in a fear shaken world.”
“Italian Plastic” is the section of the album where Paul Hester weighs in with his usual lighthearted contribution to the effort. It is right up there with his legendary song “My Telly’s Gone Bung.” Hester was the prankster of the band with the deeply hidden pain that would eventually bring his demise. Here he provides this over the top funky song. It is a perfect reflection of the band’s great appreciation for the ridiculous and their fantastic sense of humour. This song again was a blast for live audiences as it fully displayed Hester’s no filter naughty innocence that he brought to the band.
After the lightheartedness of “Italian Plastic,” the band follows it with one of the most heartfelt bittersweet songs in their discography. “She Goes On” is a song that is a tribute to the Finn brothers’ mother who had passed away. If you have ever lost someone dear to you this song conveys all the yearning and emotion of that loss. An elegiac ode to those who are never forgotten, it chronicles how sorrows dull and one is able to eventually cherish the memories of loved ones; “Pretty soon you’ll be able to remember her lying in the garden singing.” It is a simple heart-rendering and gorgeously beautiful song, “…in her soft wind I will whisper, in her warm sun I will glisten, till we see her once again in a world without end, she goes on.” If every other song on this release had been substandard this song would have completely justified the album’s release.
The final listed song of the album was “How Will You Go” which was a great send off to the album. The mid-tempo waltz number bids you farewell as you go on your way. It again has a great folk vibe and beautiful harmonies. It is an apt goodbye to an album that journeyed through human nature and a spectrum of emotions and themes. But wait there is a hidden track contributed by Hester and as usual full of beans, “I’m Still Here” is a wild and crazy giggle of track where the band rocks out as they are captured in what one can only imagine was a late-night jam session.
With the disappointment of Woodface’s reception in the US and various other frustrations, Paul Hester left the band mid-tour in 1994 citing family obligations. Time would reveal that he was already suffering from chronic depression. His departure unintentionally but effectively broke up the band. Tim Finn would also leave the band while they toured the UK as he could not find a niche when the band played live and found himself shuffling his feet onstage. Crowded House would replace both Hester and Tim Finn with Mark Hart and first Wally Ingram and then Peter Jones taking the drummer’s throne to complete the tour.
The group would go on to release two more albums with the original band configuration, 1993’s Together Alone and the 1996 compilation album, Recurring Dream. Crowded House announced their disbanding in 1996 and gave a farewell performance with the original three members at the Sydney Opera House called Farewell to the World. Neil would go on to focus on his ongoing solo career releasing to date three albums. He would also collaborate with his brother on Finn Brothers releases, help form the Oxfam benefit band and album 7 Worlds Collide The Sun Came Out with the help of various guest musicians including; Eddie Vedder, Ed O Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead, Johnny Marr, Jeff Tweedy and a number of others.
Nick Seymour would become a record producer, form the band Dead Star and continue to pursue his artistic endeavours. Paul Hester would get involved with the band Largest Living Things, act as the character Paul the Cook on the popular children’s’ show The Wiggles and participate in various media creations in Australia. In March of 2005, Hester committed suicide after years of fighting depression. It was a devastating blow for the other band members. Neil has since commented that “When we lost Paul it was like someone pulled the rug out from underneath everything, a terrible bolt out of the dark blue. He was the best drummer I had ever played with and for many years my closest friend.”
Many thought with Hester’s passing that the band was a finished commodity. In 2006 Finn and Seymour decided to reform the band with Mark Hart and Matt Sherrod, drummer for Beck, to release Time on Earth, which contained several stirring elegies to Hester, and in 2009 they released Intriguer.
Time will tell if additional Crowded House albums will be released with a new member configuration. Thankfully fans have the glorious Woodface to savour and appreciate. The collection of songs on Woodface displayed an amazingly talented foursome at the peak of their powers. It is truly an under-appreciated masterwork that deserves dusting off and giving another go.