Neil Finn - Dizzy Heights
When the video clip for 'DIVEBOMBER', the taster track from Neil Finns' new album landed on the net on November 1st 2013, my reaction at first viewing was, good ol' Neil has got his prog-sox on again - in a big way.
LESTER RECORDS: LRNF0011CDD
Released February 2014.
The clip features layers of overlapping imagery; the looped home movie footage of youths dive bombing from rocks, superimposed on cloudscapes with washed out sixties film stock. It evokes a conflicting sense of idyllic reminiscence but also insinuated menace with the sounds of howling fighter dives slicing the soundtrack, and the suggestion of strafing tracer shells etched across the images.
Neils' delivery of the opening lines in a childs' sing-song manner, dissolves into a sweeping string arrangement at once dramatic, disorientating and, well, Prog at its' finest.
For me, it raised the question, where is Neil coming from with this album?
Granted, Dave Fridmann, the co-producer, has obviously been an encouraging and adventurous collaborator. He has past good form with artists such as THE FLAMING LIPS, WEEZER, SPARKLEHORSE, and more recently, eager young space cadets, TAME IMPALA.
The Lips were renowned for their 'wall of weirdness' musical stylings. Densely crafted sound collages with disorientating shifts in tone and texture, often within the same track, are the sonic signature the band still utilises.
It is also worth remembering that Fridmann cut his teeth as the bassist in another revered alt-rock band, MERCURY REV.
Seldom known to shy away from a bit of studio tom- foolery, MERCURY REVS' albums share a lot of the feel I hear in some of these new tracks.
But I think Fridmanns' influence alone does not account for what we hear on “DIZZY HEIGHTS”.
I cast my mind back over Neils 'musical path since 1974, when he was drafted into his older brother Tims' little art rock group, Split Enz. Neil was already competent on the piano, and was honing his skills on guitar. He was a natural and tuneful singer, and having already played to an audience, was comfortable with crowds. He replaced the departing co-founder of that group, guitarist Phil Judd.
Judd had been responsible for many of the dramatic arrangements that burnished those first years of ENZ music.
Complex, multi-textured slices of art / prog / vaudeville musical neurotisicm, that sounded other- worldly, even when heard in the context of vintage U.K. progressive music.
Neil arrived just in time for the recording of “DIZRYTHMIA” in the U.K. He joined SPLIT ENZ having been exposed to the bands' music and mindset from the start.
He fitted the performing side of the band like a glove. Donning the costumes, bouncing around the stage like a sheep-dog on dexies, and generally raising the energy level in a very discernable way.
Musically, of course, he had to prove his worth with his new bandmates. When that acceptance did come, his confidence grew.
Over the course of the following years, a remarkable sequence of albums were recorded and released;
“FRENZY” 1978, “TRUE COLOURS” 1980, ” CORROBOREE/WAIATA” 1981, “TIME AND TIDE” 1982, “CONFLICTING EMOTIONS” 1983, and the closer, ” SEE YA ROUND” 1984 .
Neils' talents blossomed.
More than that, however, his sharp ear for a melody line, gift for a good lyric, and distinctive high register voice became the catalyst that moved the ENZ from fringe cult band, to mainstream contenders.
But whilst enjoying his contributions to that music enormously, I always wondered if and when his first tactile experiences of music, i.e. his brothers' odd and quirky music,would surface in his own writing.
The rest of that story is well known. “TRUE COLOURS” remains one of the greatest Australian / New Zealand albums ever recorded. It was successful both in both artistic and commercial terms. It is loved and influential, often namechecked by an illustrious set of music legends.
Oddly ,the later set, “CONFLICTING EMOTIONS” is rather overlooked. But it remains a classic none the less. Neils' tune “MESSAGE TO MY GIRL” is simply glorious, melodic pop. But I would contend that one of the more influential tracks here was a vintage mind f*** from his big brother.
To my ears, it is Tims' barking-mad title song, that seems to be the one that lends its' influences to “DIZZY HEIGHTS”.
So, can I suggest that this title track is also one of the earliest touchstones for the texture, scope, and performance of this new album.
Not so much in the actual musical skeleton, but more the unhinged spirit that wafts from the speakers when it is played. When you have prime SPLIT ENZ weirdness in your D.N.A., it will soon rear its beautiful strange head.
SPLIT ENZ maintained a large and faithfull following in Australia and New Zealand ,added Canada and Europe, but were never able to click in any meaningful way in the U.S. markets. College airplay, and a responsive but smaller following in the States meant that the viability of maintaining the band was becoming an uphill battle.
Tim dabbled very successfully with a solo album prior to the dissolution of the band. “ESCAPADE” released in 1983, was critically well received and commercially very successful. It remains a prime slice of off- beat pop, timeless and joyful.
Time was up.
....and so it came to pass.
The ENZ begat THE MULLANES. THE MULLANES, in short order and indecent haste, begat CROWDED HOUSE.
CROWDED HOUSE established a large and loyal following, released a series of excellent albums and toured the world. I want to skip an overview of CROWDED HOUSES' numerous remarkable achievements, pausing just to flag the the two tracks I believe are also antecedents for ” DIZZYHEIGHTS “.
The debut album had a strange and haunting track entitled, “HOLE IN THE RIVER”. The lyric tells the sad and poignant true story of Neil and Tims' Auntie, and how she had inexpliciby taken her own life by drowning. The studio version of this song is quite moving, but somehow, it does not catch the sorrow and anguish that the lyrics demanded and deserved.
Fast forward to 1996, and the release of the wonderfully curated “RECURRING DREAM” set. As a bonus, early editions included a full disc of recordings that demonstrate what a force they were in live performance.
Many of these tracks are from a concert recorded in Newcastle, Australia, and failing the eventual release of the “LIVE AT THE TOWN AND COUNTRY” set, probably one of the best representations of the live band we will get, with due note of the “FAREWELL TO THE WORLD” album.
After the first track, “THERE GOES GOD”, the band start a jam, that is identified simply as “NEWCASTLE JAM”. The almost telepathic interplay between the band members is extraordinary. Neil ad libs some lyrics, and the band weave around him, with the track building and building until it just collapses under its own magnificent weight. That any band could discard a piece like this as a mere jam, and not develop it more, is a measure of the power these guys could summon.
I think the ecstatic release caught in this track is definitely echoed in the spirit of so much of the music we hear DIZZY HEIGHTS. Excellent musianshipship following an idea, a feeling, whereever it may go.
But the other track that I think deserves consideration, is the live “HOLE IN THE RIVER”. This performance is everything this track needed to be. The band play with great sensitivity, obviously aware of the songs depth of meaning. Neil sings the lyric in an almost detached manner.
It would be hard to deliver these words with a full and open heart - you would just fall apart. But as if to carry the import for him, the other members voice eerie lines of banshee like wails, echoing grief, hopelessness and despair.
The track finishes with an instrumental rush - cathartic and satisfying. The impact of this track, for me, is a deep sense of 'otherness', dislocation, perhaps a dream like quality. This is the feel of so much of what we find on “DIZZY HEIGHTS”.
I would argue that these two tracks are rooted in the textures he, as a teenager, absorbed when hearing “MENTAL NOTES” at such close connect all those years ago and therefore, these are the possible roots to what we have here.
From Neils' solo work, I would pick one significant track. It is from the 2001 album, “ONE NIL”; a delicious track called “HOLE IN THE ICE”. From its grungy and abrasive opening bars, to the eventual dissolve into a classic FINN melody, I think this track is everything that is so wonderful about “DIZZY HEIGHTS” encapsulated in a four sweet minutes of musical brilliance.
So, how does the new album measure up?
Opening track, “IMPRESSIONS” arrives with a rather opiated feel to it. Reminds me a little of PORTISHEAD. Lovely lines of spidery guitar mixed deep in the mix, and a dreamy harmonised vocal. Here we find the key lyric - ” We want to sink into the atmosphere”. If the thematic core of the album is about anything, it is 'atmosphere'.
This track segues into the title track, “DIZZY HEIGHTS”. In many ways a classic Crowded House sound, but the breathy vocals, and string flourishments give it a distinct late seventies blue-eyed soul feel. Yes, you read that correctly.
“FLYING IN THE FACE OF LOVE” arrives on a tight bass line, and if any one track is likely to get main stream radio play it it this. Pure delicious pop, with a beat made for the dance floor. Who knew?
Now things get weird : “DIVEBOMBER”. W.T.F.?
Distorted atonal guitar line plays under Neils' vocal. The sound of vintage aerial dogfights emerges, whilst a gentle string arrangement builds. Neils' vocal has a high, strangulated sound to it. The fighters continue to soar and swoop until a gentle piano refrain brings the track to a quiet conclusion. Very grand, but so very, very strange.
“BETTER THAN T.V.” is a quirky track cleverly disguised as a rush of pop. This would have sat comfortably on the “TIME AND TIDE” album.
“PONY RIDE” has a rhythm track that also recalls “TIME AND TIDE” and would have sat nicely in that company as well.
“WHITE LIES AND ALIBIS” shows the Fridmann influence in its scratchy noise intro, before developing into another PORTISHEAD style mover with dabs of sound dropping in and out of the mix. Delicious under headphones. I am still picking out the lyrics from the rather deep place they are buried in the mix, but would I be right to think this is a continuation of the “INTO TEMPTATION” theme?
“ANIMAL VS HUMAN” recalls the feel of the “ONE NIL” album, and shifts abruptly into the next track.
“RECLUSE”, a straight forward tune, with Neils' vocal upfront on the verses, and falsetto harmonies in the chorus. Listen carefully and you will hear a few traces of reversed tapes in the mix. Very, very satisfying.
“STRANGEST FRIENDS” is a cool track with a propulsive rhythm to the fore, and nice little instrumental breakdowns. Perhaps this and “FLYING” are the tracks that are closest to the CROWDED HOUSE signature sound. Taut and well constructed, classic melodic pop.
“IN MY BLOOD” is another upbeat track, with string flourishes giving a classic rock feel.
Album closer “LIGHTS OF NEW YORK” finds Neil at the piano, singing a lullaby as much to a time as a place. A reverie with ambient sounds, and a very downbeat ending for the adventurous set preceeding it.
So, the right coproducer, at the right time? Definitely. But Fridmann had an artist with deep alternative musical roots, and a strong desire to keep growing. Remember, Neil has spoken of how, as a teenager, his bed-time listening music was THE BEATLES splendid ” REVOLUTION 9” , followed by ” GOOD NIGHT”.
The man knows his 'mind -bend' from his 'melody'.
So, is it a worthy addition to the FINN canon?
Some of these new tracks seem to be built around jams. Or, perhaps the jams are built around the vocal line. Either way, you can discern the core playing, but are very aware of the layering of detail added later. A few of the vocals sound very raw, some are set deep into the mix. Some are placed up front, clear and prominent in the mix. Vocals are often treated as an instrument. If you hear it, you will know what I mean.
There are a number of bold and experimental tracks that will annoy listeners wanting the classic CROWDED HOUSE sound. For them, there are indeed, a few gorgeous, lush ballads. But the overall impression is of Neil stretching his sonic borders.
His band? In true FINN family style, his partner Sharon, who plays a mean bass, and sons Liam and Elroy, with the odd guests.
Need we be surprised?
It is a challenging and brave album for an artist of his standing. It takes numerous listens before it even begins to reveal its treasures, and thus is an album with a depth you will still be discovering in years to come. It has sense of mystery to its sonic signature, and because it sounds so little like anything else released at this time, already sounds rather timeless.
There is some irony in the fact that the man who helped moved SPLIT ENZ from a fringe band, to mainstream success, has now done a flip, and moved his own sound out towards the alternative and experimental. I think this will be more appreciated in a longer timeframe, rather than an instant hit.
Having just enjoyed this album for a fifth time, I realize also that most of these tracks will absolutely cook when performed live.
The mastering on this CD edition sounds fine. I could pump it up without it getting brittle and hard, so hopefully, it has not been subjected to too much post mix compression.
The mix is also a pleasure through good headphones. The prog D.N.A. comes through nicely, but it is not, as such, a Prog album. Alternative, most definitely.
Prog, no. Never mind. What it is, is excellent.
For me, it is a welcome addition to a fine body of work.
COLLECTIBILITY (Finn Fan)
UPDATE: Further listens to the lyric of “WHITE LIES AND ALIBIS” lead me to think the lyric is actually about a wrongful incarceration, with the protagonist being sustained by the hope that a woman believes in him. The 'dark' verses are buried deep in the mix.
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.