, September 22nd, 2011 09:31
In 1998, Neil Finn released his first solo album Try Whistling This, a record that bemused a few critics in its firm move away from the Crowded House template, incorporating orchestral, electronic and even slightly gothic touches under the production hand of the great Marius de Vries. Try Whistling This prompted some to pronounce that Finn had 'gone Radiohead' or even 'gone trip-hop'.
But the truth is that he has had a strong streak that embraces the strange and contemporary ever since he joined Split Enz in 1977. Since Try Whistling This he's put out an equally exploratory album in One Nil (2001), one album with his brother Tim that saw him at his most utterly twee and sentimental and then two new Crowded House albums that were somewhere in between. Finn has been fond of a left-field turn for decades, but it's unlikely anyone among his fervent fan-base has heard him do anything quite like this before. Pajama Club is a band made up of Finn, his wife Sharon (a famously shy presence in the shadow of the great man up until now) and two fairly innocuous Antipodeans in Sean Donnelly and Alana Skyring.
That we are in unchartered Finn territory is immediately apparent with first track 'Tell Me What You Want', a wildly odd duet between husband and wife detailing the intricacies of their sexual etiquette – "I feel dumb / Every time I have to ask / It takes the magic away" sings Finn in a libidinous croon reminiscent of Bryan Ferry or an Anglo-Celtic Prince. It seems almost inappropriate to the point of incongruousness, were it not for a typically effervescent quality that nods to one of Finn's most under-recognised influences: glam rock.
Next, we get a brilliantly satisfying slice of drone-inflected rock in 'Can't Put It Down Until It Ends' that takes us back to 1995's Finn album (made with Tim). Except soon we hit a mildly electro-clash passage that hints at… early Friendly Fires. This is the great songwriter at his most wonderfully inventive, clearly inspired by the unusual (and in the case of his wife, untrained) talents around him, apparently bringing his focus back to the primitive qualities of rhythm and percussion. This is also true of the even better 'These Are Conditions'.
Battles, however, this is certainly not, and there are several inevitable returns to McCartney-isms at various points. 'Golden Child' is one of the rare moments of the finger-picked melody that will be familiar to the more casual Neil Finn fan, or indeed anyone who enjoyed the former Beatle's albums from the last couple of decades, like Flaming Pie or Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. Or, for that matter, McCartney's Fireman album of 2008, Electric Arguments, with producer Youth (who produced Crowded House's momentous Together Alone LP).
And there is a bit more familiar terrain. Those trademark Crowded House minor chords make an appearance on 'Daylight' (the first time 'fuck' has been in a Neil Finn song?) and 'Dead Leg', along with those famous life-affirming codas of his. 'Go Kart' posits the album back in the realm of the weird, however, and it is this one that includes Johnny Marr and members of Radiohead and Wilco. The album's high point, the energy of the larger ensemble is palpable.
It is ludicrous to suggest that Finn is any sort of zeitgeist-chaser trying to stay relevant. He grew out of that in his late teens. But there can be little doubt he has indulged something nagging at him as he has watched his son Liam tread his erratic way through a vaguely experimental solo career, as well as New Zealand's wider current breed of youthful pop innovators. But at the same time, in its loose instrumentation and sometimes confused layers (and some questionable lyrics) it does sound noticeably like a side-project from start to finish, and that it was written and recorded in a hurry. There is magic in that of course, but you do feel that is not the way to coax out Finn's A-grade material.