***NOTE: this is the first in a series of reviews that revisits an album from the past that made a ripple in the pond of my nascent musical appreciation…most of them are from the 1990s…that is NOT a bad thing…
Winning a MTV Video Music Award can sometimes be a bitch. Crowded House brought home the award for Best New Artist in 1987 for their (justly) lauded commercial juggernaut of a self-titled debut. You know the hits – “Something So Strong”, the ubiquitous “Don’t Dream It’s Over – but Best New Artist awards are saddled with the urban legend that it curses those artists who win it to future obscurity (see also the “Best Supporting Actress” award at the Oscars…Mira Sorvino, anyone?) and Crowded House would never again reach the omnipresence that they did in that year leading up to their VMA. Some would argue that releasing the more-challenging “Temple of Low Men” as a follow up was probably to blame more than some screwy “curse”, but let’s be honest: our collective attention span is short in the pop music world, and as an American culture we love to find a single, play the hell out of it, and discard the band that made it into the litter bin of history. It just happens.
As luck (and history) would have it, Crowded House waited until their fourth record to unleash their masterpiece. Still fairly popular in the UK and in their native lands Down Under, “Together Alone” was foisted upon the world in 1993 (it would wait until the doldrums of January 1994 to see release stateside) and it showed the quintessential pop band - and it’s leader, Neil Finn – take on a more shadowed and nuanced tack. Recorded in Kare Kare, New Zealand by Youth (bassist for Killing Joke), several of the albums songs are drenched in the ambiance of its location: tropical yet desolate, lush but forged in isolation. You can practically hear the beach at night in songs like “Private Universe” and the titular closing track, and for every perfect pop gem (the fact that “Distant Sun” alone didn’t push this album past platinum is a damn shame), they take left turns into skronkier and sometimes haunting territory. “In My Command’s” guitars bark out atonally, and Finn’s desperate vocals blend with the overdriven bass and driving drums of “Black and White Boy” (itself a reference to drummer Paul Hester’s festering, and supposedly undiagnosed, bipolar disorder which would drive him to take his own life in 2005). This is new and often foreign territory for Finn’s songs which were more typically built around the architecture of McCartney-esque melodies. Most affecting of all is “Fingers of Love”, a thrum of echo-y, pleading vocals built atop a bed of acoustic guitar and augmented by auxiliary powerhouse Mark Hart’s otherworldly lap steel. It encapsulates the album in miniature in 4:27 – melodious, melancholy, and hugely emotional.
It is telling that a mere 2 years after the album’s release, the band would break up after playing one final show on the steps of the Sydney Opera House – it’s as if the perfect, quiet desperation of the album was something Finn knew he would not be able to compete with (acknowledging as much by naming his first solo album “Try Whistling This”!) The band would lay low for a decade before Hester’s suicide brought the remaining members back in touch and Crowded House have since released two additional albums that while good, didn’t come close to capturing the magic they bottled in that island retreat in Kare Kare.
Some stray factoids:
The album cover (designed like all of their covers by bassist Nick Seymour) depicts Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad riding in a cab – “together alone”, indeed!
I was lucky enough to see Crowded House play the Buffalo Harborfront in the summer of 2010. I am not sure I will ever again experience as euphoric a concert moment as the band tearing through a truly EPIC 7-minute version of “Private Universe” in the gloaming of Buffalo’s waterfront. It was magical…