Friday, September 04, 2015

"Walking on the Spot" / Crowded House

I missed a lot of music in the 1990s -- pregnant, with two toddlers, who had time in 1994 to listen to pop music? And I'm guessing that Crowded House, hailing from New Zealand (via Australia), didn't make much of a splash with American audiences anyway. I have two friends who are confirmed Crowded House fans -- one from Spain and the other from Northern England.  I don't mean to make excuses for myself, but it is possible -- just possible -- that this record was never played in my hearing until a year ago.

But now that I've heard it -- oh, who could NOT fall in love with a melody this gorgeous?

Okay, now here is the lazy internet research. Crowded House grew out of a NZ band named Split Enz, which I think I must have heard of in the 1980s but ignored because MOST 1980s MUSIC SUCKED! (and even Uncle E will admit that.)  Two of their songs did lodge for a time on US charts, "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." At least, when I listened to the iTunes samples of those songs, they were immediately familiar. So far, so good.

But my test of a great band is that they get better the deeper you go in their album tracks. (I'll admit that this litmus test is based on my experience as a Kinks fan. But hey, we all come from somewhere.) On that criterion, Crowded House hits it out of the park. The deeper I dig in their repertoire, the more I like it. When I finally dug out this track, from 1993's Together Alone album, I knew I had hit gold.

It's the soulfulness of this song that gets me. They have me by the third chord change, as an edgy discord switches up the lush intro. The synthesizers give us just a taste of accordion, Paris, melancholy wheeze, before resolving. I'm already in a vulnerable place, emotionally, and jeezus, the lyrics haven't even started!

And when they do -- oh man oh man, are we in tenebrous territory. "The odd times we slip / And slither down the dark hall / Fingers point from old windows / An eerie shadow falls." Poetry, my friends! But the shifting melody totally supports it, keeps us on uneasy ground.  

Crowded House's leader and songwriter, Neil Finn, has spoken about the making of this album as a mystical, brooding time. The band was living on Karekare beach in New Zealand, and Finn says everyone in the band was affected by the stark surrounding landscape.  Now that I know that, I can almost hear the rising tide in this song, the long sweeping curve of melody restlessly shifting in and out of minor key.

And yet it's not a downer, not totally. He's "walking on the spot / To show that I'm alive / Moving every bone in my body / From side to side." (Love the scansion on "bone in my body.")  I'm guessing there's an affair going on, possibly adulterous ("Will we be in our minds when the dawn breaks? / Can we look the milkman in the eye?" -- shades of "Tempted" by Squeeze).  But then again, he and a companion could just be going on a drug bender. At any rate, he's too wrapped up in his own moodiness to explain anything clearly. 

Things go further south in the last verse, as he sinks into his emotional hangover:
Walk around your home
And pour yourself a drink
Fire one more torpedo, baby
Watch the kitchen sink
Lounging on the sofa, maybe
See the living room die
Dishes are unwashed and broken
All you do is cry

Compare this to Nick Lowe's wistful losers-in-love -- "Lately I've Let Things Slide," "I'm a Mess," "I Read a Lot" -- or, a closer fit, to Joe Jackson's despairing "Solo (So Low)".  It's a dark night of the soul, all right.  But hey, he's still walking on the spot. Still upright, still moving.  It's a small victory, to be sure, but y'know?  Sometimes you're lucky to get even that.


Iñaki said...

Great post! Wonderful band, as you said their obscure songs are as good as the hits and this is a great example. All their albums are fantastic but this one and Woodface are my two favourites. Also check out Everyone Is Here by the Finn Brothers.

BTW, I guess I'm the Spanish fan, thanks for the mention! ;)

Holly A Hughes said...

There are no doubt other Crowded House fans in Spain, but you are indeed the one I was thinking of!

Dave said...

I envy you just discovering Crowded House. You have a lot of great music to look forward to. And don't ignore Neil Finn's solo work, either. CH are great live, too -- Neil is hilarious, too. He takes the music seriously, but not himself. In that and other regards, he reminds me of Marshall Crenshaw.

NickS said...

Gorgeous melody indeed!

I have to say you have a good ear for tasteful mid-tempo songs which I would miss without a recommendation. I don't think of myself as particularly "rockist" but there's a clear category of songs that you write about which are so smooth that, if I just heard them in passing, my ear just slides right off of them. But, with your reviews I can pay attention to the emotion of the song (on other example, Occasional Shivers).

Perhaps this says something about my relationship to melody. I typically find my way into a song by starting with the vocal texture and performance -- I listen for the moments of there is something notable or distinctive about a performance, a voice, singing a particular set of lyrics, and that's where I start to look for the emotional core of the song.

In a case like this, there is plenty of character to his performance, but the vocal performance is primarily serving the melody.

On a separate note, the musician I've been trying to talk up to you for a while is Ken Stringfellow, and when you wrote, "my test of a great band is that they get better the deeper you go in their album tracks." I immediate though of The Posies (the band that Ken and John Auer formed when they were teenagers). I'm not sure that they had a single great album (my favorite is their first, but that may be nostalgia on my part) but had enough good songs for somebody to produce a 46-song, 3 disc tribute album. . . . (part of why I recommend Ken's solo albums, in fact, is that both Soft Commands and Touched are more consistent than any of the Posies albums).