Feb. 16, 2014 -- intro: This week, Crowded House leader Neil Finn issues "Dizzy Heights," while New York art rockers Cibo Matto triumphantly return after a 15-year recording hiatus. Band of Horses issue an acoustic live album and the Cardigans' Nina Persson makes her solo debut. It's a week full of new surprises from rediscovered friends from the past.
Neil Finn's "Dizzy Heights" ****
As the leader of Crowded House and a key member of Split Enz, Neil Finn has spent the last thirty-some years establishing himself as one of best songwriters around. Internationally, the New Zealand native is a respected master of his craft. In the U.S., however, he is basically known for three songs. "I Got You" by Split Enz still gets an occasional spin here, while Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong" are rightfully considered classics. But Finn is a musician's musician, counting Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr, Sheryl Crow and members of Radiohead among his friends. In fact, that's Finn singing backup on Crow's hit, "Everyday Is A Winding Road." (Crow then returned the favor by singing on his great 2001 single, "Driving Me Mad.")
If you are looking for the pleasing, straight-forward pop hooks of Finn's past on his new album, "Dizzy Heights," you'll probably be disappointed. The album delivers a dense, highly experimental song-set, no doubt due to the presence of famed Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, who makes the most of every element he can. Yes, Finn may be mellowing as a songwriter, but he has always been his strongest in ballad-mode. But here, he is experimenting like a sonic mad-scientist. His voice is often covered with a ton of reverb and echo and he's frequently singing at a near-whisper. This is a strange record, but upon repeated listens it proves to be rewarding and adventurous. Finn deserves credit for not taking the easy or expected route. He explored areas like this before on his solo debut, 1998's "Try Whistling This," but that album still had a pop core. On "Dizzy Heights," Finn is more concerned with making an arty sonic masterpiece.
This will be a polarizing record for some, but it deserves patience and close attention. At this point in his career, Finn has nothing to lose by experimenting and in doing so, he refreshes his craft.
"Pony Ride" The album's one true rock song, "Pony Ride" sounds more like the work found on his son Liam's records. (Considering Finn's sons and his wife also play on various tracks throughout the album, maybe this shouldn't be a surprise.) This track is a grunge-soaked dance-groove covered in a number of psychedelic layers of shoegaze-guitar. While Finn's voice is buried in echo, deep in the mix, the track still manages to be the brightest moment of the record.
"White Lies And Alibis" This song should do well with the people who enjoy the artier side of Gotye. (In other words, the ones who have gone beyond "Someone That I Used To Know.") Finn delivers an ominous, plodding melody here. With different production, this probably could've been a Crowded House hit, but Finn and Fridmann punctuate it with guitar squelches, echo-drenched organs and laser-gun sounds. Stripped down, though, the melody is quite strong.
"Better Than TV" A bouncy tune, punctuated by a Latin-flavored, syncopated piano-line, "Better Than TV" is a building number. Like many of the songs on here, it plays to Finn's more unsettled side. If you are looking for major-key melodic pop anthems, this album isn't the place. This is darker, meticulously stirred terrain.
"Lights Of New York" This track finds Finn delivering an intimate vocal with a piano playing distantly in the background. All around, the track is flavored with ambient street sound and manipulated and pitch-shifted synth strings. Finn deserves credit for taking what could have been a straight-forward late-night cabaret lament and turning it into something more interesting.
"Flying In The Face Of Love" This is the closest this album has to something that sounds like a traditional single. It's a driving, slightly funky groove with a straight ahead chorus. Finn avoids going for the pop jugular here. He dodges the obvious highpoints, because even in a pop-leaning mood here, he's in search of something moodier. Fridmann's production adds some echoes and phantom crashing sounds.
"Dizzy Heights" This jazzy title track is more like an electro-leaning offspring of the Bee Gees and Steely Dan. It is woozy, lulling lounge music in the best sense.
title: Cibo Matto's "Hotel Valentine" ****1/2
It has been a long 15 years since Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori issued a proper Cibo Matto record. We last heard them on their diverse 1999 album "Stereo Type A." That album infinitely widened the scope of their 1996 classic "Viva! La Woman." Naming their album "Hotel Valentine" and releasing it this week was a wise and well-planned move. A quick listen to the album proves that the group picks up right where they left off. Like the rest of their work, this is experimental hip-hop flavored music with hints of lounge and funk. In many ways this album plays like a wacky Japanese cousin to Luscious Jackson's latest album "Magic Hour." And that's not surprising considering that the two bands emerged from the same Beastie Boys-centered New York scene in the '90s.
Effectively, this record fuses the art-house, left-field experimentation of "Viva! La Woman" with the more polished pop stabs of "Stereo Type A." Interestingly, in the history of the group, the former is a more respected record and this album's legacy should be equally as strong. Although the music scene is strikingly different now than it was in the mid-nineties, one hopes there is still a new audience open to something this groundbreaking and experimental. In 2014, a record like "Hotel Valentine" seems remarkably freeing and fresh. The women of Cibo Matto need to stick around this time and continue to make more records this weirdly entertaining.
"10th Floor Ghost Girl" This is everything you want a Cibo Matto track to be. It is a funky dance number with a heavy guitar riff during the chorus. Along the way, there are flecks of hip-hop loops and even a left-field horn-solo. This is post-punk and post-rap disco in its highest form.
"Emerald Tuesday" The funky drummer, woozily elastic bass-line, echo-assisted organ notes and spattered bits of freaked-out horn-play all come together with an impressive sense of cohesion on this dazzling track. To say there is a lot going on here is an understatement, but it all fits together very well.
"Hotel Valentine" The whole album has a loose narrative about a female ghost living in the "Hotel Valentine." This title track is essentially her theme set upon a sly bossanova beat. Over a series of horn bits and drum scratches, Hatrori explains (from the ghost's point of view) the plight of being the hotel's invisible resident.
"Housekeeping" This is a smooth bit of electro-flavored hip-hop, which should please those fans who loved classics like "Know Your Chicken" and "Sugar Water." It earns bonus points for its guest appearance from musician and comedian Reggie Watts.
"Déjà Vu" Perhaps the name of this track is intended to play on the fact that Hatori and Honda themselves are playing with long-lost sounds of their past. This would've sounded great on "Viva! La Woman," and the electric piano chording underneath the chorus adds a jazzy flare.
Band Of Horses' "Acoustic At The Ryman (Live)" ***
The evolution of Band of Horses has been somewhat disappointing. After two excellent rock albums for Sub Pop, the band signed with Columbia to issue two forgettable country and folk-soaked records that sounded like they were trying to recreate AM lite-radio gold from the mid '70s. On those later records, the band removed the harder side that had made their work interesting. In other words, they lost their "alternative" edge. On those earlier records, even the softer songs were stronger and better written than their later work.
In the live, acoustic setup, the tracks from the latter "Infinite Arms" and "Mirage Rock" are improved by the removal of their production sheen. But in the end, the majority of the strongest tracks here are from those first two records. But this does serve as a revisionist document to some degree. Ben Bridwell and company are tight live performers and the album is mixed for an authentic live feel. In other words, this would actually be a decent starting point for anyone interested in exploring the band's uneven discography.
"The Funeral" This is still the band's signature (and best) song and in this framework it shines quite brightly. Bridwell's voice is as clear as a bell as he sings over a piano. Without the loud guitar riffing outbursts heard in the studio version, the song doesn't lose a bit of momentum as it gains a newfound vulnerability. It's still a remarkable bit of songwriting.
"Detlef Schrempf" A tender ballad named for the famed basketball player, this was originally a highlight on the band's second album, "Cease To Begin." Again, with a sparse piano backing, Bridwell is able to get to the song's tender center.
"No One's Gonna Love You" Taken from the same album, "No One's Gonna Love You" possesses a similar brand of sweetness. And Bridwell is singing his heart out here. You can hear the heartbreak in his voice.
"Slow Cruel Hands Of Time" This track from "Mirage Rock" is given more vitality in the sparse acoustic setup. The studio version sounds like elevator music, whereas there is a live energy here that gives the song more of a campfire glow. It's a fine line, I know, but a small touch can make a difference.
Nina Persson's "Animal Heart" ***1/2
text: Nine years after the last album by her band, The Cardigans, Nina Persson re-emerges as a solo artist, and "Animal Heart" is a shiny bit of mature Swedish pop. Hearing Persson's voice brings back immediate memories of the immensely popular "Lovefool," off her band's 1996 classic, "First Band On The Moon." Sure, there is nothing here as funny and endearing as the Cardigans' cheery interpretation of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," but this album easily earns its place. If one were to look for a Cardigans single that most foreshadows the majority of "Animal Heart," it would probably be "Live And Learn" from 2004's "Long Gone Before Daylight." Persson spends the majority of this record alternating between low-key dance pop and warm, soaring ballads. These songs never hit you over the head. They are meant to be gentle compositions, but in their own subtle way they continue in Sweden's long-standing pop tradition. Synths are all around, but often as subtle accents. Even though this isn't really an "alternative" record, the intelligent songwriting is what you would expect from a veteran of the '90s alternative scenes. Persson may be remembered most for her Cardigans work, but on "Animal Heart" she begins to set her own path.
"Jungle" The most immediate song here, "Jungle" marries a mid-tempo, semi-sultry dance beat with a catchy melody. Persson's protagonist seems to be on the run as she declares, "It's getting kind of hard to hide in the jungle."
"Silver" A sweet lullaby of sorts, "Silver" becomes a slightly orchestral waltz as Persson sings with great love and devotion. The organ outro is a nice touch.
"Burning Bridges For Fuel" This is a slow-building ballad and it plays to all of Persson's best qualities. She's always been an ace at masking harsh or dark sentiments in beautiful, sweet-sounding tunes.
"The Grand Destruction Game" This is a country-reggae sing-along with some great organ accents. The chorus finds a wonderfully unexpected semi-psychedelic lift.
"Animal Heat" This title track is straight out of an '80s pop production book, but it has the kind of new-wave shine that is back in vogue now. It's another anthem that appears to be about escaping.
Next week we'll listen to the latest from buzz-band Phantogram, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' keyboardist Benmont Tench and more.