Drawn by Mortal Hands
44 · 30 November 95
It's too bad that Neil Finn already used Together Alone as an album title for his other band, Crowded House, as it would otherwise have been perfect for this album, played entirely, save bass on a single song, by Neil and his brother Tim. To fill in their collaborative background, Tim started Split Enz. Neil, the younger brother, joined in time to write, and then enjoy, the group's commercial breakthrough, "I Got You". After some time together, Tim left the band for a solo career. Neil continued briefly, and then retired Split Enz and reconfigured some of the remaining players as the more streamlined and considerably less eclectic Crowded House, which proceeded to do rather better than Split Enz ever did, both in terms of success and haircuts. For Crowded House's third album, Woodface, Tim joined the band, but he left again before album four. And then, just to further confuse things, a couple years ago the two of them briefly reformed Split Enz for a twenty-anniversary tour, which produced a 1994 live album. With Crowded House temporarily in remission after the draining Together Alone tour, though, and Tim only sporadically required for work on ALT's album, what better time to do an album with just the brothers?
If you know the history leading up to it, Finn strikes me as very much what you ought to have expected. Both brothers have mellowed considerably since Split Enz, and the combination of the informality of their playing all the instruments themselves and the lack of pressure that comes with this being a side project make for a marvelously loose, casual album, with the Finns' sterling songwriting given an appealingly organic musical setting. There are lots of acoustic guitars, simple two-part harmonies, solid but uncomplicated drumming, and tasteful keyboard augmentation. Neil and Tim both have big-pop aspirations, albeit with different flavors, on their own work, and this album seems to me to stay much more within itself. You might find that this makes it underwhelming for you, but I think it produces a record of enviable calm and poise.
Parts of it could easily be Crowded House outtakes, and for all I know are just that. "Only Talking Sense" is a slow, thoughtful song not entirely unlike "Fingers of Love". "Where Is My Soul" is a spare acoustic tune that I'd expect to sound like Crowded House if it was fleshed out further. And "Last Day of June", the one Neil Finn solo composition, sounds unsurprisingly like the band he usually writes them for.
There are plenty of places, though, where Tim's more eclectic sense shows through. "Moon Swinging Man" and "Paradise (Wherever You Are)" both sound kind of weird and drifting to me. "Eyes of the World" builds a punchy strut out of choppy guitar and some very Split Enz-ish keyboards. Only an insistent unison bass-and-guitar line fills in the spaces around "Niwhai"'s deliberate percussion, with the Finn's muted vocals contributing to the dark overall texture, a lone squalling guitar solo about the only detail to emerge brightly. A strange, quavery keyboard sound (a chamberlin?) runs through "Bullets in my Hairdo", which has another nicely muted drum track. And "Kiss the Road of Rarotonga" is like some sort of distorted Kiwi version of the blues, showing New Zealand roots that are also manifest in the aboriginal percussion that opens "Only Talking Sense" and "Paradise (Wherever You Are)".
The two songs that stand out for me here, though, are the two that I think sound the least like the brothers' other projects, and the most like something unique to Finn. That they are the first two singles I believe I will take as a sign that Neil and Tim agree with me. "Suffer Never" is measured and restrained, but the restraint makes the harmony that much more poignant to me, and the chorus that much more beautiful. The song's simplicity seems to encourage close inspection of each element. I like the contrast created by the noisy cymbals starting and stopping, and there's something grand and "Bullet the Blue Sky"-like in the way the guitar howls in the breaks. The dull, wooden thud of the snare is comforting. The second single, apparently, is "Angels Heap", a languid ballad that again makes good use of uncluttered instrumentation to highlight the nuances of the vocals. There's not much on this album that anybody would call spectacular, I think, but some days spectacle isn't what you want from music.
Tim's other project is a fitful trio composed of himself, Andy White, and Hothouse Flowers' Liam O'Maonlai. Their album is, if anything, even more casual and organic than Finn's. Stylistically, the most prominent element for me turns out to be O'Maonlai. I liked the last Hothouse Flowers album, Songs from the Rain, quite a bit (though I recall saying at the time that it was 1993's best Waterboys album, despite competition for the honor from the Waterboys themselves), and so perhaps I hear his authorial presence most clearly here for that reason. His dramatic voice is also, I think, the most distinctive of the three, and his natural musical propensities are perhaps further toward the spiritual and acoustic than Tim's. White I know nothing about, other than suspecting that it's him who insists on breaking into demented falsetto at every opportunity.
I'm not going to single out individual songs on this album, because I don't think that's the point. The charm of this album is not in the structure of any particular composition, but in the overall entrancing vitality of the impromptu ensemble. Many of the songs, in fact, feel like the players constructed them by laying down some basics and then just repeatedly rewinding the tapes, lining up a couple blank tracks, hitting record, and then trying to think what else would sound good on the song. The lack of structure at times makes the music sound intriguingly experimental, and reminds me a little of late Talk Talk or Orang, though ALT has neither the production force of the former nor the ambient/worldbeat aspirations of the latter. And however haphazard the technique may have been, the players have superb musical instincts, so there's never the slightest danger of the project turning into Ween. The improvised feel seems inspiringly natural to me, and enthrallingly musical. The joke-voice harmonies do make odd counterparts to Liam and Tim's usual earnest styles, and some of the songs bear suspicious signs of possible insobriety, but it is a warm-hearted drunkenness, if indeed that's what it is. This is the inebriation of quiet country evenings and compassionately drained bottles of wine, not the grim and surly inarticulateness of drinking as a lifestyle. In the end, Altitude sounds to me like nothing so much as staying up late with some good friends who also happen to be excellent musicians, listening to them make music as an extension of their friendship, rather than vice versa. And I'm in favor of that.
Mike Scott: Bring 'Em All In
Speaking of the Waterboys, after carrying the identity for years as a thin disguise for his solo work, Mike Scott has finally laid it to rest and made an album under his own name. I approached it with some skepticism. The last Waterboys album, Dream Harder, I thought was an embarrassing mess, with enough egregiously awful moments that I quickly grew tired of the effort required to program around them. But Scott has always been erratic, or at least my appreciation of his music has. I adored A Pagan Place, the Waterboys' definitive effort at The Big Music. Then they made This Is the Sea, which some people evidently consider their best album. I thought it was disappointingly unmusical, with Scott trying much too hard to be Bob Dylan, in the worst sense. But, not to worry, by the next album, Fisherman's Blues, Mike had recruited a whole new band of Celtic neo-traditionalists, and set out to make delirious Irish folk music. I loved it. Room to Roam, next, wasn't as pure about its influences, and I thought that was great in its own way, too.
So though I hated Dream Harder, it seemed as likely as not that this album would be something different, and quite possibly something fantastic. This is half true. The good news, from my point of view, is that the solo credit on the album is representative of the general musical approach. Scott plays a range of instruments over the course of the album, but the parts with just him and his guitar are definitely the core. He has stalwart folk leanings, a gentle guitar style and an appealing voice, and I'll take an album of that over "Corn Circles" any day.
The bad news, at least for me, is that folk music of this sort depends heavily on lyrics for its animation, and that's where things begin to go dangerously awry. "Bring 'Em All In" consists almost entirely of the repetition of those four words. I know, the repetition is supposed to convey his emotional sincerity, as he accepts everything into his heart. I grow tired of the insistence. "Iona Song" and "Edinburgh Castle" mistakenly assume that any journey is inherently worth chronicling in a song ("Edinburgh Castle", in particular, is a wealth of detail related to no end I can discern). "What Do You Want Me To Do?" and "Learning to Love Him" are devout, but not evocative. I don't mind spirituality, even Christian repentance, but if you're going to make a song out of it you have to convey something of the passion, not just refer to it.
"Wonderful Disguise" and "Sensitive Children" both also seem to me to suffer from excess repetition. In "Wonderful Disguise" I think it almost works, as what Scott means by saying that everybody is wearing a wonderful disguise is left at least nominally undefined. "Sensitive Children", however, is cloying and pathetic, and makes "Hell Is For Children" sound downright literary. "City of Ghosts (Dublin)" combines the non-virtues of repetition and pointless geographical specificity. "Building the City of Light" is nearly as monotonous as "Bring 'Em All In". And "She Is So Beautiful" is another exercise in what strikes me as gutless sentiment.
My least favorite song by far, though, is "Long Way to Light", which makes the mistake that all too many "successful" graduates (or victims, depending on your perspective) of cultish therapy programs seem to, assuming that because the program made a big change in the teller's life, a laborious narration of the transformation will be captivating to anybody they encounter. Extended far beyond what its music would justify, in order to accommodate the ill-advised granularity of the story, this song is not only creepy, it also fails to convey anything important about the experience beyond the fact that the center in question is on Findhorn Bay. Also, the context of the phrase "Healing on my mind", in the chorus, keeps making me think he means that healing is something, like drumming, done to the surface of the mind in question, and this notion offends me deeply for reasons I cannot adequately explain.
The one song whose lyrics I really like is "I Know She's In the Building". This is a skillfully constructed bit of verse, in which it is possible to glean not only the narrator's optimism, but the grim reality he's clearly denying. The fervency with which he believes that she's here somewhere, combined with his admission that he has no idea where, forms a striking portrait of irrationality. I love the odd line toward the end where he says "She knows the room by number". I do wish that Scott had left out the last couplet, "King Pan, inflamed with love and joy / For Her, his elfin Queen", which threatens to return unwelcome crackpot mysticism to what was otherwise a nice psychological study. Of course, now that I've said all these nice things about the song, it occurs to me that it might really be about a girlfriend visiting him at his Institute. Or perhaps the "she" in the song is salvation, and this is just another song about his personal Findhorn revelations. Hmpf. I liked it better before I thought of that.
Maybe I'll like his next phase better.
And for a musical change of pace, still on the topic of new projects by people who've been around for a while, Burned is the long-awaited (by me, anyway) debut album by Echo and the Bunnymen alumni Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant's new band, Electrafixion. This, too, was rife with potential. Echo and the Bunnymen's album Ocean Rain was one of my favorite records for many years, a masterpiece of atmospheric grace, emotional drama and New Wave neo-psychedelia, and I'm of the school who believes that Will Sergeant deserves a lot more of the credit than he's usually given for the guitar style that the Edge ended up getting so much mileage out of. McCulloch's solo work didn't inspire me, and the Bunnymen without Ian were sadly bedraggled, so a reunion made a lot of sense.
This isn't what I expected it to sound like. If I hadn't been told, I wouldn't have guessed that Sergeant was behind the blurry guitar noise that fills most of this album. McCulloch's vocals also seem overprocessed to me, and he seems to be singing awkwardly, as if paranoid that a unwelcome subtle nuance will slip out if he isn't careful. The obvious explanation for this odd behavior, I'm afraid, would be that Electrafixion are hoping to make sales inroads in the US, and have concluded that the only way to do this is by adopting a sort of murky Candlebox/Stone Temple Pilots/late-Cult grunge-noise persona. If this is the motivation, it's a sad capitulation to trend by some people who in a just world would have long ago been able to stop worrying about how many records they were selling.
But to give them the benefit of the doubt, let's briefly assume they decided to do this because they wanted to. Taken that way, this album does have its moments. "Sister Pain"'s surging guitar/bass riff is gripping, as is the way McCulloch's cry of "Shoot" in the chorus echoes away. I like the howling guitar feedback on "Lowdown". The rattling drum groove and wailing background vocals on "Never" almost sound like the Sisters of Mercy. "Too Far Gone" is forceful and propulsive. "Mirrorball"'s thick descending hook reminds me of "All Along the Watchtower". The Ned's-like bass line on "Hit by Something" is infectious. And parts of the driving "Bed of Nails" even remind me of Echo and the Bunnymen.
But it's all so cloudy. If this was supposed to be a roaring rock album, why are the guitars buried under such a deadening layer of production crud? If Electrafixion are supposed to be dangerous and angry, why is Ian singing everything like he's trying to conceal the fact that he has a bad cold? I just don't know. I really want to like this album, and I'm not yet convinced I won't. But so far I haven't figured out how.