‘Crowded House’- Crowded House

When Neil Finn put Split Enz on hold for the much more straight-ahead pop sound of Crowded House, it shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise as it probably was. The frantic experimentation of Split Enz certainly differs from the simplistic sentimentality of this self-titled record from 1986. That’s a given. As time wore on, though, Split Enz did become noticeably more pop-oriented. Crowded House, if anything, served as the end product of Finn’s more accessible tendencies within his artistic capabilities. You can hear the transition from “History Never Repeats” to anything on this record as easily as you understand the flow of this record’s ambition.

The opening track on the record is “Mean to Me”, which serves as the icing on the cake as far as Finn’s complete transition from art rocker to pop star. It’s also important to note that he sounds as if he’s been freed on this song and this record. You can feel the relief of being the part of a much simpler project in every note that he utters throughout this record. There is a freedom, a simplistic freedom that carries this record’s strongest moments. Keep in mind that there is an emphasis here on ‘strongest’. There is a certain amount of filler scattered throughout this record. Fortunately, this record houses “Something So Strong”, which is without question one of the most blissful pop songs of the ’80s. This is track is only to be outdone on the record by “I Walk Away”, a pretty similar track that just happens to do it a little better. Obviously, you can’t talk about this record without mentioning “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. This track, though loved by many less-than-demanding pop radio listeners of the decade, just seems to be a little off the mark. It’s an okay song, but it doesn’t share the sense of freedom that the two prior mentioned tracks do. There’s nothing wrong with the track, but this fact remains apparent. Is it the worst romantic ballad of the decade? Certainly not. Is it the best? Far from it.

At the end of its duration, this record leaves a mostly positive impression on the senses. It’s pretty good. It’s far from perfect, though, and one of the reasons for this is that Finn seems to have left his knack for quirk and adventure behind. Yes, there is plenty of bliss on this record, but too often the songs sacrifice any sense of adventure just to squeeze in a few more guaranteed spots on the radio. Some of the charisma is missing. It’s unfortunate to say, there are a couple of particular tracks that really shine. Another component of this criticism, though, is the fact that it’s difficult to feel too strongly for any kind of derision of the product. The uninspired moments aren’t usually too painful. For this reason, many of the record is easy to forgive. Finn and the band were looking to create a crafty ’80s pop master formula with this release and, ultimately, they don’t succeed. At all. These guys aren’t Marshall Crenshaw. What they are is a mostly solid band that, when they’re at their best, are pretty good at what they do. For many, this will be enough. It’s easy to be cynical with bands like Crowded House, but the ends rarely justify the means in this pursuit. What crime have they committed? If nothing else, you at least have to commend the two standout tracks mentioned above. You could do worse than this.

3.5/5

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‘All You Need Is Now’- Duran Duran

New wave stalwarts, Duran Duran, were back to their bag of tricks on this 2011 physical release (a truncated downloadable version was released in late 2010), ‘All You Need Is Now’. If you know anything about these guys, then you know that they’re pretty reliable and often predictable with their format. If the question of whether or not the band was capable of carrying their infectious brand of new wave pomp into middle age with any kind of vigor or believable zest remained at the time of this release, the band doesn’t care too much to solidly answer the question. Rather, they gleefully dance around the question while giving the listener multiple answers to be applied.

The opening track on the record is the title track, which also happens to be one of its absolute highlights. In a musical climate that has seen more than its fair share of “boy bands” since the band’s glory days, it’s easy to overlook the fact that these guys pulled off that silly concept far better and far earlier than many other artists would willingly lay claim to. From the Backstreet Boys through One Direction and every other group in between, none of the so called “boy bands” ever wrote a song as charming and groovy as the title track of this record. Fortunately for the band, tracks like “Leave a Light On” actually showcase much of the maturity that these guys have employed since the release of ‘Duran Duran (The Wedding Album)’ back in 1993. Without this maturity, of course, the band wouldn’t have been able to survive the changing musical tides that took place in the early-’90s, which were obviously carrying a much more cynical tone than the peppy nature of a band like Duran Duran. However, this was 2010, and “Girl Panic!” makes it quite clear that the band is fully aware of what their legacy is going to end up being. Rather than shying away from this, as many former “boy band” musicians have (George Michael), Duran Duran choose to embrace it with an acceptance that isn’t the least bit apprehensive or reluctant. Even though this is true, the best track on this record is “Mediterranea”, leaning, of course, towards the more mature tendencies of the band’s later work.

Will all listeners like this record? Probably not. Then again, Duran Duran are probably considered to cutesy by many. The problem with that assessment lies in its decidedly nay-saying ambition. We may as well go ahead and face it: Duran Duran are stalwarts for a reason. With that said, this record is far from a perfect record and definitely far from the band’s best outing. Some of this material is tired and recycled from other outings. It’s refreshing, though, to hear the band sound this fresh on the record’s better moments many, many years after their career peaked. Logically and realistically, there is no reason why Duran Duran should still be putting out quality records that are popular. Perhaps it’s even true that popular music would be better off without the band’s legacy. That’s a pondering worth considering and maybe even granting a fair amount of truth to, but that misses the point. These guys have always been about fun and flash; the energy of the party zips through the night sky as it shouts out the band’s name. You might as well do yourself a favor and roll with it. It’s not likely to ever change.

3.5/5