Songs from the Attic
In 1999 a publisher released an unfinished Ernest Hemingway manuscript as “his undiscovered last novel”. Those who read it wished it had stayed that way. The same is usually the case with rock’n’roll archaeology. Those outtakes of favourite songs that seemed so essential to hear usually reveal why they, indeed, remained outtakes. The archivist mentality isn’t really about music, but about stamp-collecting, train-spotting: obsessive completism that leads to cluttered, dusty shelves presided over by hermits and bores.
Afterglow, the result of some spring-cleaning by Crowded House, is all about music. Dominated by leftovers from the lead up to Woodface, and the Karekare Together Alone sessions, it gels like a proper album. There are some excellent songs here that were never released, or seemed inconsequential when they came out as B-sides. Being a compendium of songs that were all-but orphans, it reveals a lot not only about Neil Finn’s perfectionism, but also about the band itself. With all the concentration in the last few years on Finn as a songwriter, it’s often overlooked what a compatible ensemble Crowded House was: a true band glued together by its rhythm section and harmonies. (It was particularly forgotten in New Zealand, where a lot more people know the songs than ever saw the group live.)
That the band could crank it up with the best of them is instantly apparent from the opening number. ‘I Am in Love’ is compelling; it must have kept all of Karekare awake the night it was recorded. The band’s chemistry and rapport is obvious, and it shows what a loosening of the bowels those sessions were. ‘You Can Tell’ is similarly rescued from B-side oblivion; recorded at Karekare one night after Paul Hester took his teddy home, Finn’s guitar and drumming explore a raw nerve.
A sparse version of ‘Private Universe’, all harmonies and reverb, completes the visit to Karekare, but ‘Help is Coming’ – recorded nearly three years later – has the same atmosphere. It dates from the wet winter of 1995, when Crowded House spent an unsatisfying month in Auckland’s York Street studios. By then, Peter Jones was on drums; he brought the R&B out in Nick Seymour’s bass playing, an Al Jackson to Hester’s Keith Moon. Seymour’s basslines weren’t so much walking as wandering, a melodic counterpoint that added to the musical mood.
The bulk of the album comes from 1989-90, the period when Crowded House was in limbo. Seymour was briefly out in the cold, and Neil was finding more success writing with Tim than for the follow-up to the Temple of Low Men (an album that almost had too much depth for its audience). The absolute gem is ‘I Love You Dawn’, a romantic acoustic ballad Neil wrote to his wife. Of captivating simplicity, it will enter the canon of great love songs. Similarly heartfelt and charming is ‘Lester’, Neil’s serenade to the family dog, written after the dalmatian caught a car.
The songs that were meant for Woodface show how crucial it was to start over and bring in the Finn brothers’ co-writes to give the album its strength. ‘Sacred Cow’ and ‘Anyone Can Tell’ reveal that Mitchell Froom’s method of patching together unrelated choruses and verses doesn’t always lead to a ‘Fall At Your Feet’. (Froom astutely declared the waltz ‘Time Immemorial’ was “too folky”; he also felt Woodface was too long.) Also from the abandoned Woodface rough mix, ‘Dr Livingston’ never takes off, and while ‘Left Hand’ has a ballsy ‘Come Together’ groove, it’s like an after-hours improvised wig-out.
Did I hear the word “Beatlesque”? There are worse slurs, and Crowded House pulled it off better than most. But ‘Recurring Dream’, the earliest song here – a dated, one-riff relic from 1985 – is not enough to resurrect the Pete Best of the group, original guitarist Craig Hooper, and Hester would be the first to admit his slight ‘Telly’s Gone Bung’ was “Ringo’s song on the album”.
These are the elements of Afterglow. Thanks to its strong opening, variety but consistency, it can be seen as a worthy fifth album rather than an archaeologist’s dusty discoveries.