CD Review: Crowded House

Time on Earth ATO
Music •••• Sound ••••
It wasn't supposed to be this way. What began as a potentially stark, understated solo effort has instead evolved into a surprising, touching, and heartening reunion project. No, I'm not referring to (bite your tongue) the Spice Girls; I'm talking about Crowded House's first studio album in 14 years, Time on Earth.

Actually, it's not all that surprising if you caught the camaraderie evident between bandleader/songwriter Neil Finn, bassist Nick Seymour, and keyboardist/guitarist/jack-of-all-trades Mark Hart during the 2006 group commentary track on Crowded House's Farewell to the World DVD, which often came across as an extended form of grinworthy stage patter amongst old friends. Farewell documented the band's triumphant 1996 buh-bye show on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in front of (yes) 120,000 faithful fans. It was also a bittersweet reunion with original drummer Paul Hester, whose unfortunate suicide 9 years later would be one of the factors to initially bring Finn and Seymour back together (with Hart soon to follow).

Some would say Hester's absence hangs over much of the soul-searching on Earth, but it's not the album's sole impetus. Finn's songwriting has often championed resolve amidst melancholia - or, to borrow a line from one of the band's most celebrated songs, "Don't Dream It's Over," he has a knack for expressing feelings of liberation and release. On the surface, "Silent House" - the buzz-building track that Finn co-wrote with the Dixie Chicks for their Grammy-grabbing '06 album, Taking the Long Way - would appear to mourn Hester, but it's actually about how to deal with a person who has Alzheimer's. Sometimes, the hardest part of a record is overcoming the baggage that listeners bring to the (turn)table. Certainly, new drummer Matt Sherrod (R.E.M., Beck) has big shoes to fill, but he knows exactly when to lay back and when to turn on the heat, as he does during the stroll-then-gallop changes of "Say That Again."