It's early June, and less than 48 hours earlier, an event took place that immediately changed the manner in which the current Finn Brothers tour was perceived. At the conclusion of a concert in London, Crowded House, guitarist/vocalist Neil Finn's main project for the past decade, shuttered its windows and bolted its doors. Suddenly, singer-songwriter Tim Finn--Neil's older sibling and erstwhile bandmate in both Crowded House and its popular predecessor, Split Enz--finds himself fielding questions from journalists who want to know if the Brothers' self-titled debut album and the series of performances it's spawned were factors in the House's collapse.
"It's not like a direct thing," Tim says from Sydney, Australia, "but I think it may have affected Neil's thinking in the sense that everything we've done with this project has been pleasurable, and we've kept it that way quite deliberately. We've only done the press and the touring that we've wanted to do, and we paid for the record ourselves so there's no sort of feeling of debt to anybody.
"I think probably it made Neil think, 'Wow,'" he continues in a cool, distinguished, lightly accented voice, "because to some extent, the burden of expectations with Crowded House has been substantial. Its first record was so hugely successful, and I think ever since then there's been this desire in everyone around them to get back to that point or beyond that point--which they haven't done. And that becomes a drag after a while, what with too much interference from the outside. So I think what our record reminded him of is that things can be much purer."
This observation is an apt one, for the prime characteristic of Finn Brothers, released in this country on the Discovery imprint, is its utter effortlessness. While most recordings creak to some degree with the creative energies that were expended in the process of making them, these eleven ditties seem as natural as the sight of the sun rising over the Finns' New Zealand birthplace. What the long-player loses due to the absence of bracing sonic highs (only the final track, "Kiss the Road of Rarotonga," rocks in the conventional sense), it more than makes up for in subtlety. Cuts such as "Only Talking Sense," "Angels Heap" and "Paradise (Wherever You Are)" flow into one another beautifully, exuding unforced tunefulness and a quiet confidence that's far sturdier than the qualities present in most disposable pop. Listening to it, one senses that the brothers have grown so comfortable with each other that any discord that might once have complicated their relationship has long since dissipated.
This may come as a surprise to those who caught the Crowded House configuration that visited Boulder in 1991 to support the disc Woodface (originally conceived as the first Finn Brothers offering). For that album, Tim was invited to move into the House and become a full-time member alongside Neil, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour. But live, the blend of Finns was surprisingly awkward. The brothers stayed at opposite sides of the stage throughout most of the appearance, seldom interacting or even making eye contact. The tension was palpable, and it led to a performance that was less a sustained musical statement than a case study. No doubt realizing this, Tim left the ensemble a few dates later.
Today, Tim sees this experiment more objectively. "There were some great shows and some not so great shows," he says. "But Neil--all he had to do was to turn around and look at me to know that I wasn't suited to just being a keyboard player in a band, doing harmonies. I just wasn't fully stretched, and he knew that. He likes to see me stretched, and I like to see him that way, too--that's when we're both at our best. But in that setting, it was like I was too contained in a way; it was too easy, and I don't think either of us was particularly happy about that. In the end, it was a square peg in a round hole, really."
It also represented a role reversal, since Tim, as the older brother by about six years, was accustomed to having Neil literally and figuratively play his tunes, instead of the other way around. During an interview with Westword at the time of Woodface, Neil made frequent reference to the dynamics of power between him and the elder Finn. "Tim maintains that when I came along, he got pneumonia," he said, "and that he was always trying to compete with me by getting really close to me." Later, Neil added, "While we were apart--especially when he had a solo career and I was doing Crowded House--I was conscious of what he was doing and he was conscious of what I was doing, and any success on either side was noted and difficult to accept in a way. But I don't want to go too heavily into that, because it was just what you would expect."
In responding to these comments, Tim comes across as a bit frosty; he seems mildly peeved to discover that Neil ever discussed these issues in public. "Brothers can talk about this kind of stuff, but if you start putting it out there in the media, it can obviously be misinterpreted," he grumbles. However, he subsequently warms to the topic. "I didn't realize until years and years later that I had enjoyed the young-prince syndrome. I had older sisters, but I was the only son, the adored one. Since I was just six at the time, none of these would have been very hardcore, crystallized concepts by any means. But like any child, you enjoy the autonomy and the uniqueness--and I do remember that I became quite ill around the time Neil came along.
"But at the same time, he and I never had any overt rivalry. I was obviously older and stronger, so there wasn't much point in him feeling rivalrous of me. So he looked up to me and idolized me--and I guess I enjoyed that feeling of passing things down. I didn't patronize him, I feel, or exploit that, or attempt to make him my slave or anything--but I enjoyed that type of feeling. It wasn't at all contrived and manipulative. We did tend to get on, and we did like each other. And in terms of music, we always sang together, so there was always this type of deep, intuitive bond."
In 1971 Tim temporarily broke up this team by enrolling at Auckland University. The next year Split Enz was born, and although there were few examples at the time of artists from Australia or New Zealand breaking through to a worldwide audience (unless you counted the Easybeats--or Olivia Newton-John), Tim's avant-garde creation quickly gained a reputation that extended beyond the Southern Hemisphere. The combo's first album, Mental Notes, appeared in Australia in 1975; a reconfigured version of the platter, produced by Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera and released with the same title, hit stores a year later. Shortly thereafter, a conflict between Tim and Enz co-founder Phil Judd threatened the future of the group. But a solution was close at hand: Judd was ousted and Neil, then nineteen, was brought aboard. This personnel change brought out the band's poppier side, heard to good effect on 1977's Dizrhythmia, the especially impressive 1979 LP Frenzy, and 1980's True Colours, which contained the band's biggest Stateside hit, "I Got You."
The records that followed--1981's Waiata, 1982's Time and Tide and 1984's Conflicting Emotions--were worthy, but the hits didn't keep coming. So Split Enz fractured, with Tim going solo and Neil forming Crowded House. From that point on, Neil was in the driver's seat; while Tim's well-crafted albums (Escapade, Big Canoe, Tim Finn, Before & After and ALT) earned respectful reviews and very limited sales, Crowded House broke through to mass acceptance with its 1986 self-titled debut and the single "Don't Dream It's Over." Temple of Low Men, Woodface and Together Alone came next, but they didn't match the acclaim of the first disc, to Neil's consternation. Hence his decision to once again start anew. (Capitol Records, Crowded House's label, has commemorated the threesome's shutdown with a new compilation, Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House.)
Finn Brothers, though, should not be confused with Neil's next major commercial salvo; rather, it was an opportunity for Tim and Neil to collude musically in a low-key environment. It was recorded in late 1994 and, for the most part, the contributors consisted of the Finns and producer/engineer Tchad Blake, whose name has been on several of the most brilliant albums of the Nineties--by Los Lobos, the Latin Playboys and Soul Coughing, among others. Contradicting Neil's 1991 description of his and Tim's tunesmithing techniques ("When Tim writes a good song, I want to write one that's better"), Tim says, "It was fully collaborative. When we worked together, there was absolutely no competition. We both were just dying for the other one to come up with good ideas, and then we joined and merged with that and pushed it along even further."
Tim confirms that the Finns are doing their best to echo these modes in concert. This approach was becoming impossible for Neil in Crowded House, which is why Tim says, "It was a good decision, a good call, to stop. And he will go on to do interesting things. He and I will continue to do records together every once in a while, but we won't make it the only thing or put too much importance on it. Because we want to make it something that we really look forward to doing."
The Finn Brothers. 8 p.m. Saturday, July 13, Boulder Theater, 2034 14th Street, Boulder, $17.50, 830-
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