Time On Earth

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday July 10, 2007

For Crowded House fans, the bands' headlining act for the Australian segment of the Al Gore-organized, globe-spanning Live Earth concert on July 7 was hotly anticipated for the chance to hear a sample of the group's first new material in eleven years. But there was another concern on the minds of Crowdies everywhere: namely, how would the band sound with former Beck drummer Matt Sherrod taking over for the late Paul Hester?

The answer: Sherrod provides the band with a vital, steady pulse, and Crowded House sound just fine.

The live concert featured only two songs from the band's new album "Time on Earth." The album's first single, "Don't Stop Now," was played early on, and "Silent House," a track front man Neil Finn co-wrote with The Dixie Chicks, followed later. Otherwise, their nine-song set was a selection of old favorites, including "Locked Out," "Fall At Your Feet," "Distant Sun," "Something So Strong," "Weather With You," "Better Be Home Soon," and the band's signature song since way back when, "Don't Dream It's Over," the song that made Crowded House's eponymous first album a hit.

The new disc offers fourteen tracks, many of them elegant, elegiac ballads, with a scattering of more energetic tunes (which may answer the question of why the new disc needed two producers, Steve Lilywhite and Ethan Johns). The live show on Saturday may have proven that the band still have a knack, and a joy, for playing live music, especially when technical difficulties led to the lights going out mid-set ("It's a good time to snog your girlfriend," suggested Neil Finn), but even while these songs exhibit a masterful and meticulously glossy production, the new collection misses a fundamental energy that used to mark the albums from the '80s and '90s.

This is no great surprise; Finn is getting older, and his solo work (as well as "Everyone Is Here," the 2004 album he and brother Tim Finn collaborated on) has gotten more and more concerned with the specters of age, mortality, and the difficulties of the creative process. Factor Hester having taken his own life two years ago, and it's easy to understand why so many of the songs on this new offering have a moody, mournful sensibility.

That's not to say that "Time on Earth" is a downer. It's possessed by many keenly expressed emotions, from the jocular "She Called Up," to the itchy, driven "Say That Again," to the '60s pop vibe of "Even a Child" and the lush, Beastles-esque "You Are the One to Make Me Cry," with its lounge-lizard love ballad sound and its movie soundtrack strings.

But the prevalent sentiment here is one of grief and reflection. "Pour le Monde" sounds like a dirge to Hester, with its mournful lyrics ("I lost my regard for the things I had / And the radio was sad"; "He fought for you in the stadium / For the world, not for the war"), its minor-chord musicianship, and its wailing delivery.

Other songs seem less funereal, but retain an aura of lullaby reminiscent of the aptly-titled "Lullaby Requiem," from Finn's 2001 solo album "One Nil." "Heaven That I'm Making" has such a sound, as does "You Are the One to Make Me Cry." (Extra track "Lost Island" on the single "Don't Stop Now" is a lullaby, too, replete with choral backdrop that evokes the Maori chorus from "Together Alone.")

Other songs sound a bit more mature while holding on to their tender (sometimes raw) feelings, being built around bluesy riffs; "She Called Up" fits this mold, sounding like something that could have been included on the band's self-titled 1987 debut album, and "Silent House" imparts its sense of loss with a haunting lyric about a man who has lost his wife to dementia. The turmoil described in the words -- shredded books and all -- churns through guitar solos (Nick Seymour and producer Ethan Johns are in top form) and dusky hooks.

"A Sigh" is an out and out heartbreaker, complete with new-agey, coruscating synth, but it takes a few listens to get past an initial impression of triviality. The same is true (to a lesser extent and after more listenings) of "English Trees," which on the surface is a forgettable observation about growing up the son of northern Europeans transplanted to South Pacific climes.

Most songs on the new album boast a rich soundscape, and Neil has obviously brought something to this disc from the Everly Brothers-style harmonies he and Tim engaged in on "Everyone Is Here." "Walked Her Way Down" starts out sounding like a cross between "World Where You Live" and a Zero Seven tune before rousing itself into a proper little rocker of a love ballad along the lines of "She Will Have Her Way" or "Instinct." "Nobody Wants To" is a sonic painting on an expansive canvas, gleaming with smooth melodic lines and lovely harmonies.

"Transit Lounge" does something Finn has hardly, if ever, done, which is to include a recording from the real world (airport announcements), but when he follows this up with a soulful vocal performance from Beth Rowley that contrasts nicely with a jokey chorus, you find yourself in one of Neil's custom-made acoustical dream-places.

Finn's solo masterpiece remains his first solo album, "Try Whistling This," a carbon-gray world of wild seas and existential expanses lit up with scintillations of lightning-like brilliance. "Time on Earth" is not as dark nor as wild, but in tone and mood it slots nicely between "Try Whistling This" and the Crowded House album "Woodface" (which, in its inception, had initially been intended as a Finn Brothers collaboration: hence the inclusion, however brief, of big brother Tim in the Crowded House lineup). Indeed, "People Are Like Suns," with its sweeping vocals and muscular guitar, and "Silent House" could be throwbacks to the "Woodface" era.

This is the work of an older, sadder, wiser, and mellower Neil Finn. There's no white-hot "Sister Madly" here, nor is there a take-no-prisoners yank at the chain of the drowsy beast of consumer culture in the mode of "Chocolate Cake"; even the usual Finn preoccupations, like the torment of the creative process (detailed with a delicious, lacerating sting in "Driving Me Mad") or the threat of mortality (take a listen to "Any Time" from "One Nil") seem to be treated with less wide-eyed terror and more rumination, as on the loping, toe-tapping "Don't Stop Now."

in other words, Finn, Seymour, and Hart, together with new recruit Sherrod, are not the merry young pranksters they once were; but they are old friends, and it warms the heart to have them in the House once more.

Label: Ato Records / Red. Release Date: July 10, 2007. Price: $15.98. ASIN: B000Q90D7G

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.