In 1998, Neil Finn released his first solo album, Try Whistling This. The title was a reference to Finn’s reputation as a writer of unabashedly melodic songs. With Split Enz and then Crowded House, Finn was responsible for some of the most accomplished, McCartney-esque pop music of the 20th Century. But like McCartney before him, Finn had developed a complex. The very traits that made his music so timeless also left him open to criticism for being a syrupy lightweight. Try Whistling This was intentionally more opaque, but not necessarily the better for it.
So now, after reforming Crowded House for two albums which showcased a more sophisticated take on Finn’s traditional pop songcraft, is Finn feeling a bit guilty? Or did he just want to try something new? After more than 30 years in the industry, who could begrudge him the desire to form a garage band with his wife? That is what Finn has done with Pajama Club. Along with Neil and Sharon Finn, the band includes Kiwi musician Sean Donnelly and former Grates member Alana Skyring.
To be sure, Pajama Club does not sound like anything Neil Finn has released before. He is consciously trying to downplay nearly all the traits that have made him great. His smooth, sincere voice is buried in the mix and coated in distortion and reverb. He often metes out his lyrics in a monotone. He’s put himself on drums, probably because it’s the only instrument he is merely proficient at. And, while it is not devoid of hooks, Pajama Club clearly puts texture before melody. The all-around vibe is loose, prickly, and a bit trashy. It’s a bold move for someone of Finn’s stature, now in his fifties and with nothing left to prove. And, while far from an embarrassment, it’s not quite a success.
Anyone expecting Finn’s trademark sincerity, warmth, wit, and pop/rock expertise will be disappointed. But that’s not really the issue, because it would be naïve to expect Finn to form a new band to do the same thing he’s been doing for decades. The problem is that Pajama Club has very little to offer other than to prove that Finn can do edgy indie/garage if he wants to. If the sound is new to Finn, it’s not new to the world of indie music. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before, and in a more engaging fashion.
Pajama Club is the musical equivalent of one of those films where the cast all know each other and seem to have had a great time making it, but the actual product falls flat. Lead track “Tell Me What You Want” is actually fairly intriguing, as Finn mutters behind a thumping rhythm and buzzing, slicing synthesizers. The chorus is actually pretty catchy, but Sharon Finn just can’t pull off the Kim Gordon to Neil’s Thurston Moore. She simply comes across as too wide-eyed to be either as sexy or dirty as the song requires.
Granted, “Can’t Put It Down Until It Ends” benefits from a towering, overdriven organ and a danceable beat. “From a Friend to a Friend” is Pajama Club‘s best meeting point between the melodic and the atonal. Barbed guitar lines intertwine, a sound that would be melancholy were it not so emotionally distant. Then, a howling electric blast explodes over the chorus, as the Finns croon something about magic wands, before building to a multi-layered freakout coda of Radiohead proportions. Nice. “Dead Leg” exudes an almost shoegazey fuzziness. It’s telling, though, that the sadly atmospheric “TNT for Two” is the one song here that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Crowded House record and is also the best track.
Otherwise, there’s too much amateurish thumping of drums, too much distortion-for-distortion’s sake, too much unconvincing attitude in lines like “I’m a master / Of disaster.” On albums like Crowded House’s Together Alone and Finn Brothers’ eponymous release, Neil Finn has shown that he can stretch expectations and minds without putting his songcraft and heart out to pasture. Pajama Club is an admirable grab at a clean slate, but the price is just a little too high.