(Nettwerk (US); Parlophone/EMI (everywhere else))
Release date: 19 March 2001 (except in US)
PopMatters Music Columnist and Critic
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When Neil Finn released his latest solo album One Nil almost a year ago, fans stateside began howling their protests as the record’s distribution spread internationally with no word of a US release date. Now comes the likely cause of that delay—a live album recorded back in April 2001 at St. James’ Theatre on Finn’s home turf, Auckland, New Zealand. My guess is that Finn’s US label, Nettwerk, withheld release of One Nil (finally due out on these shores in April) until after they could secure a release date for 7 Worlds Collide, which features a star cast of guest vocalists and supporting players sure to attract a little extra attention to this most underrated of songwriters.
It would be nice if Nettwerk’s ploy pays off, but I doubt it will, mainly because One Nil is less accessible than anything Finn has released since 1995’s weirdly lo-fi Finn Brothers, while 7 Worlds Collide is an uneven set that hardly does justice to Finn’s talent.
This is not to say both albums don’t have their pleasures. One Nil is a typically rich Finn set, with songs that reveal new nooks and crannies on each listen, while 7 Worlds is a well-produced live set full of great moments, the best of which come courtesy not of Finn, but of the two disc’s two best-known guests, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Marr. Eddie’s role is basically to be the voice of Split Enz, which many fondly remember as the new wave power pop outfit Neil fronted with his brother Tim back in the early ‘80s. A lot of Split Enz’s stuff sounds hopelessly dated now, but thanks to some rocking new arrangements and the voice of Pearl Jam belting out Tim’s parts, songs like “I See Red” and especially the bouncing “Take a Walk” sound amazingly fresh. Marr, for his part, contributes an unreleased tune of his own called “Down on the Corner”, a sunny guitar-driven rocker which, perversely, is the album’s catchiest number. Not that Johnny Marr wasn’t always the best thing about the Smiths, but still, it’s weird to hear him upstage the master of catchy guitar-pop at his own concert.
And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with 7 Worlds—Neil Finn shares the spotlight too generously, giving over too much time to other people’s songs and not enough to his own vast catalog. I mean, sure, it’s fun to hear Finn’s very credible Morrissey impersonation on “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, one of the Smiths’ most overwrought woe-is-me epics (Marr introduces the song by asking the audience, “Is anyone depressed?”). But what is Lisa Germano’s “Paper Doll” doing in this set, or Vedder’s Pearl Jam slow-burner, “Parting Way”? Finn’s own contributions to both these tracks is negligible, and it’s not like we haven’t heard them before, so why use them and omit so many great Finn tunes?
Finn compounds the frustration by making some willfully odd track selections of his own. There are, for example, only two—count ‘em—two Crowded House tunes in the entire set, compared with three apiece for Split Enz and Tim and Neil’s Finn Brothers collaboration, including a Finn Brothers outtake called “Edible Flowers” that was left off that album for obvious reasons. It’s great to hear “Weather With You” and the classic “Don’t Dream it’s Over” rendered live, but where the heck is “Fall at Your Feet”, “Private Universe”, “Whispers and Moans”, “Better Be Home Soon”? Where, for that matter, are the best numbers off of Finn’s solo debut Try Whistling This, which I would argue is his best work? He gives us a mediocre rendition of “She Will Have Her Way”, and the arena-rock throwaway “Loose Tongue”, but where is the slinky menace of “Sinner”, the passionate balladry of the title track, the feedback-tinged power-pop majesty of “King Tide” and “Last Man Standing”, both of which would have sounded great with Marr and company in support?
A partial answer can be found on the companion DVD to 7 Worlds Collide, which features an additional nine songs, including most of the Crowded House hits along with “Suffer Never”, which is arguably a better song than any of the Finn Brothers numbers on the CD, and “History Never Repeats”, which is unquestionably a better song than any of the Split Enz cuts on the CD. It’s almost like Nettwerk decided to force fans to get the DVD by leaving all the best stuff off the audio CD.
In either format, here’s what else you get: the rest of Finn’s all-star band consists of Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway, Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and Neil’s bad penny of a brother, Tim, who sits in on all the Finn Brothers and Crowded House tracks. Thanks to their contributions and those of Marr and keyboardist-violinist Germano, the album sounds great—Selway and Steinberg, in particular, are probably the most gifted rhythm section Finn has had behind him since Crowded House’s Paul Hester and Nick Seymour, so the more uptempo numbers like “Take a Walk” and “Weather With You” have real punch. And Germano’s vocal harmonies soar on several numbers, elevating numbers like “Turn and Run” from One Nil from fair-to-middling throwaways to tunes of real emotional heft.
Apart from Marr’s “Down on the Corner”, Vedder’s Split Enz contributions, and the crowd-energizing Crowded House numbers, the set’s highlight is Neil and Tim’s acoustic rendition of “Angel’s Heap”, which far exceeds the original off of Finn Brothers. The brothers’ harmonies, always strong, are stunning here, and the song itself, shed of its quirky Finn Brothers arrangement, shines through as vintage Finn, pretty, catchy, and heartwrenching all at once. (Finn Brothers, because of its low-tech, home-spun production values, has always stood as one of the brothers’ most underrated projects—in truth, it’s jam-packed with incredible songs, although the Hawaiian-tinged “Paradise”, the other Finn Brothers track featured here, is not one of them.)
There are three tracks from One Nil featured on 7 Worlds Collide, and to be fair, Finn doesn’t go with his strongest material off this album either—the set’s opener, “Anytime”, echoes Crowded House’s best moments of pop melodrama, but “Turn and Run” has little going for it besides an interesting chord change in the chorus, while “The Climber” finds Neil in straight folkie mode, which is not his strong suit. As was the case on the brilliant Try Whistling This, the best moments on One Nil don’t sound quite like anything Finn’s done before, and only reveal themselves on repeated listens. Sure, bouncy guitar-pop numbers like “Rest of the Day Off” and “Don’t Ask Why” grab you by the labels with their toe-tapping energy and hooky choruses that Lennon and McCartney themselves would envy. And they’re great stuff—classic Finn numbers made better by the penchant for fuzz guitar drone he discovered on Try Whistling This and continues to employ here. But my favorite track on One Nil at the moment (and it keeps changing every time I listen to it) is “Secret God”, which starts off as a folky ballad with some nice sub-aquatic guitar effects, then erupts into a chugging psychedelic bridge, and swings back through one more dreamy guitar-strumming verse and chorus before finally mutating into an eerie jazz-rock jam. It’s a fearlessly inventive track, and here’s the most amazing thing about it—through all the changes, it never stops being catchy. Finn is truly at the top of his game here.
But will anyone in the US beyond his most hardcore fans appreciate it? Finn has almost completely abandoned that jangly guitar-pop sound that was so integral to Crowded House’s success—One Nil is all acoustic guitars and weird noises, sounding in many places more like Hunky Dory-era Bowie than Finn’s usual Beatlesque terrain. Some of the credit for this probably goes to his collaborators on One Nil, who include Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman of Prince’s Wendy & Lisa, producer Tchad Blake, who played a key role in making Finn Brothers the sonic freakshow that it was, and Mitchell Froom, the producer/instrumentalist behind Suzanne Vega’s weirdest albums. Lisa Germano also turns up here with some violin and vocals, Midnight Oil’s Jim Moginie lends his fuzz guitar to a few tracks, and even Sheryl Crow weighs in with some guest vocals and accordian (!) on “Turn and Run”, “Driving Me Mad”, and “Into the Sunset” (of which only “Turn and Run”, thankfully, sounds even remotely like a Sheryl Crow song). These diverse supporting players make an already-challenging album even messier—stylistically, it spans everything from the ukelele-folk of “The Climber” to the countrified “Driving Me Mad” to the impenetrable noise-rock of “Hole in the Ice”, which wouldn’t even be recognizable as a Finn song if not for its soaring chorus.
Old Crowded House fans should fret not, however—all is not weirdness. In addition to the outstanding “Rest of the Day Off” and “Don’t Ask Why”, tracks like “Wherever You Are” and “Last to Know” offer no-frills arrangements of classically pretty Finn numbers, and any resemblance to “Fall at Your Feet” or “Something So Strong” is purely coincidental, I’m sure. Not that this stuff isn’t good, but I’m glad Finn hasn’t put out a whole album of it, because he’s far too talented of an artist to keep rehashing past glories. His refusal to do so, however, might be another reason why his US label has dragged its feet in getting One Nil into the stores. The US market, unfortunately, has never rewarded efforts as risk-taking as this, no matter how many guest stars turn up on them.