By BRUCE DENNILL
Neil Finn: Dizzy Heights 6
Connecting Stars: Connecting Stars 6
Tori Amos: Unrepentant Geraldines 7
Tenth Avenue North: Cathedrals 7
Neil Finn is renowned for his ability to pen timeless singles that are the envy of songwriters worldwide on account of their clever structure and lyrical acuity. He’s also known for having a penchant for electronic noodling that, many feel, rather obscures his strengths. On his latest solo album, Finn does exactly what he wants, and the results, for listeners who still love him primarily for his work with Crowded House, are mixed at best. There are few, if any, efforts made to woo playlist compilers or even the audience to whom Finn is a household name world-wide. In fact, for those looking for something to feed their nostalgia, only In My Blood really qualifies, and that comes ten tracks in (on an 11-song tracklisting). Before that, there is the trippy opener, Impressions; the Bacharach-lite of the title track and the synthesiser-and-effects meander of Divebomber (chosen as a single, oddly) to get through. Listen to this collection once and you’ll be disappointed. Come back to it and Finn’s undeniable class begins to peek through the frustrating patina of electronica and experimentation – not a problem in itself, but an aggravation for listeners who love and cherish much of Finn’s oeuvre and don’t know quite where this material will fit into their catalogue. Not that that’s his problem, though – he could probably write a Weather With You follow-up if he wanted to, but song titles such as White Lies And Alibis and Recluse suggest an older, more world-weary Finn may have other things on his plate.
Martin “Scoop” Engel was the third member (along with John Ellis and Darryl Swart) of the early version of Durban trio Tree – now Tree63 and on the comeback trail after a long hiatus. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, though Ellis remains a constant presence as a multi-instrumentalist session player and co-producer here, and Engel continues to surround himself with musical sorts – including his wife Cheryl Engel, who wrote all the songs here and handles all the lead vocals, with Martin providing harmonies. Cheryl’s songs are good, though the real discovery here being her full-throated voice, a superb instrument that sounds like it needs an emotive country classic behind it to really give it full flight (or perhaps a duet with Blackbyrd’s Tarryn Lamb to blow away local radio playlisters). The arrangements are uniformly, pleasingly empty, with clear space between a number of acoustic instruments ranging from guitar to ukulele, banjo and pedal steel. The combination of a number of those on Little Soul, on which Cheryl’s is the only voice, take the track closest to the style that her voice demands to be fitted to, and so stands out as the collection’s best song. If there’s consensus on this observation, there may be some difficult decisions to make in Connecting Stars’ future – particularly given the relationship between the band members.
Tori Amos is the musical mind that gave a thousand other artists the courage to back their own left-of-centre compositional leanings and trust that there’d be an audience to receive the results. The “unrepentant” part of this latest collection’s title is an apt adjective for this singer-songwriter, who’s put together another set of unique tunes and wrapped them in a sleeve that’s as aggravating as the DVD sleeve of John Cleese’s How To Irritate People, which, among other things, is printed in such a way that you need to open the case on the wrong side of the case. Here, the order of the songs on the printed tracklist doesn’t match that on the disc, and the lyric sheets are randomly scattered throughout the sleeve (though not all of them are included…). Granted, this could be down to a late change at the printer’s, but Amos’ reputation suggests otherwise. Another – the major – part of that reputation has to do with her sublime musicianship, and her undisputed chops are again on display, though this album sees a good deal more layering and production than is usually the case for Amos’ voice and piano delivery. There’s nothing as prosaic as straight-ahead pop, but guitars, keyboards and electronic touches haul some of the songs here towards something approximating the mainstream. The shuffling Trouble’s Lament – another unconventional feminist anthem – gets the foot tapping as well as the mind working before Wild Way returns to more familiar territory, placing abrasive words and thoughts against and achingly wistful melody. Wedding Day goes some way to combining the two approaches with an arrangement comprising mostly guitar, percussion and keyboards rather than Amos’ trademark Bosendorfer grand. There’s a phrase amid the electronica of 16 Shades Of Blue: “There are those who say I am now too old to play.” That notion is comprehensively undermined by the joyful fairytale that is Giant’s Rolling Pin, which makes invasion of privacy seem like a giggle and makes the tuba cool again. Unrepentant Geraldines adds some welcome range to a catalogue that, while brilliant, has felt rather samey for a while. And the album will reveal more with each listen.
West Palm Beach quintet Tenth Avenue North have often matched heart-on-sleeve sentiments and commentary about their Christianity with a superb sense of what musical elements appeal to a large mainstream pop audience. Cathedrals is a bit of a departure from that mindset. Though the songs are still well written – their rock solid structures are increasingly evident with repeated listens – the facet of the album that is most apparent early on is its elements being composed in mostly minor keys. This gives the collection a serious air, which is not a problem, though it largely removes the opportunity to deliver tunes that sound either triumphant or inspiring in the superficial, chirpy sense. Some of the simplest material is the most effective: I Need You, I Love You, I Want You is slow, stately and heartfelt, though still catchy enough that if it was sung by the Kings Of Leon it’d become a set highlight in their stadium gigs. We Won’t Numb The Pain/Fire is two songs in one, the first part a Hard-Fi-esque electronica-tinged and the second a straightforward acoustic strum. They’re paired because both deal lyrically with missing out on important aspects of God – firstly the opportunity to lean on Him when things are going wrong and secondly the chance to enjoy Him when everything’s hunky-dory. Though it’s not necessarily clear from the offset, Tenth Avenue North have taken a big risk here – and pulled a rabbit out of the hat. They’ve stepped away from pop and created music to challenge and provoke thought. It may be that listeners won’t put this album on unless they’re in a mood to reflect, but when they do give it a spin, they’ll emerge from the experience edified.