Cash-in compilation can't help but being top-notch. Except for "Chocolate Cake", that is.
At least the folks at Capitol have a sense of humor. With the extra "very" in The Very Very Best of Crowded House, they're acknowledging this is a cash-in on a band that's no longer on their roster. Capitol released Recurring Dream -- The Very Best of Crowded House shortly after the band split in 1996. Hot on the heels of the re-formed Crowded House's latest studio album, Intriguer, comes this new collection. Intriguer, however, is not represented on The Very Very Best of Crowded House. Instead, Capitol has licensed from the band's current label a couple tracks off 2007's Time on Earth, shoehorned them into Recurring Dream, swapped out handful of tracks for good measure, and given the small number of new fans a slightly more comprehensive career overview. Got that?
Both collections come in at 19 tracks, and have all but five of them in common. Redundant, yes, but that's what struggling major labels do when there's a back catalog that can be exploited for a fraction of the cost of a studio album. So which one's better, The Very Best of Crowded House or The Very Very Best of Crowded House? Basically, it's a six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other proposition. You can't lose, because Crowded House is one of the most consistent, intelligent, and catchy pop-rock groups of the last 25 years. Either way, you'll get highlights from the band's initial four studio albums, plus a couple tracks recorded for the 1996 release. Or, spring for the digital version, which consolidates both releases and adds even more tracks. "Don't Stop Now" and "Pour le Monde" from Time on Earth are fine songs, but neither is a dealmaker or breaker. If anything, they demonstrate how songwriter Neil Finn has aged gracefully, perhaps too comfortably for some.
If there's a deciding factor, it's the appearance on The Very Very Best of Crowded House of "Chocolate Cake". No album that claims to be the best of anything should include that song, which Q magazine once aptly described as "the song that single-handedly ruined [Crowded House] in the States". Sure enough, the track, with its canned anti-Americanisms and dated Tammy Faye Baker references, is a rare misfire from Finn, and a bad one at that. The lead single from third album Woodface, it did indeed ensure that, while Crowded House was huge in much of the world, in the U.S., it would thereafter be a cult concern.
The folly of "Chocolate Cake" is glaring because everything else on The Very Very Best of Crowded House is very, very good. Early touchstones "Mean to Me", "Something So Strong", and signature hit "Don't Dream It's Over" are here, and are surprisingly bereft of the trappings of the '80s, when they were recorded. In other words, no sax solos or overcompressed drums or gratuitous synthesizers. Just warm, good ol' songwriting. Tear-in-the-beer ballad "Better Be Home Soon" showed the early run was no fluke, and the other Woodface selections are prime. Just as Finn could be nostalgic without sounding schmaltzy, as on the classic "Weather with You", he could look romance straight in the face without being sentimental. The indelible melody and campfire chorus of "Four Seasons in One Day" don't make Finn's world any less complicated a place. They only mean he's "smiling as the shit comes down."
If The Very Very Best of Crowded Houes has anything resembling a surprise to spring, it's the implicit acknowledgement of 1993's Together Alone as the band's masterpiece. No fewer than six selections from that album are included. The sublime ballad "Nails in My Feet" is a welcome addition, building a delicate tension to a euphoric climax, to which the only possible response is, as Finn sings, "total surrender". The beautiful, almost baroque "Pineapple Head", moody "Private Universe", Lennonesque rocker "Locked Out", and thoughtfully pop "Distant Sun" all demonstrate the range and experimental edge Crowded House had by that point acquired.
Then they split up. Thankfully, they've righted that oversight, and The Very Very Best of Crowded House, though redundant in both name and content, is a worthy by-product.