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Something So Strong

On August 1, 1981, MTV broadcast its first video, a blast of tuneful Technicolor called "Video Killed the Radio Star." The band that sang it, the Buggles, went on to accomplish absolutely nothing and has been immortalized primarily on the back of Trivial Pursuit cards. The second video MTV aired that historic night, however, was an even madder parade of freakish pop called "History Never Repeats." Played by a clown-suited, beach-ball-wielding gang of New Zealanders called Split Enz, the song also went nowhere. But its followup, "I Got You," became an international smash, with a video featuring six garishly coiffed young men in big, goofy suits that David Byrne would have psycho-killed for.

"The 'I Got You' video was us in our streetwear, really," says Tim Finn, who, along with his younger brother Neil, was a member of Split Enz. "It was very stripped down, pared back, even minimalist for us. We'd already been going for eight years by then, and we had been so much more extravagant around '73, '74, '75. Our drummer, Noel Crombie, came up with the haircuts and costumes we wore. He went to art school, and he borrowed a lot of ideas from Picasso and Matisse. He just cut up fabrics and created distortions. He was deconstructing the suit."

Likewise, Split Enz deconstructed the pop song, employing oblique melodies, torque-heavy rhythms and a surreal playfulness that preceded new wave by almost a decade. The music world caught up with the Finns in the early '80s, but the brothers soon fell out of step again -- that is, until Split Enz broke up and Neil formed Crowded House. With a more plainclothes approach, the band had two huge hits in 1987 with "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." After trying his hand at a solo career, Tim moved into Crowded House for 1991's notable Woodface, a platinum-seller almost everywhere except America.

Now, after a patchwork of releases throughout the '90s -- including the well-intentioned if lackluster collaboration Finn -- Tim and Neil have reunited for Everyone Is Here. One of the strongest, most resonant works of their careers, the disc couldn't be further from the pastel-splashed wackiness of Split Enz. The cover is a gritty, somber shot of the siblings standing under a cloudy sky, and the inside isn't much chirpier. Laden with bare-boned ruminations on aging, death and loss, it's as brittle and dusty as rust. But like every record the Finn Brothers have ever touched, Everyone is pure, unabashed pop -- and its ringing chords and rich harmonies are laced with, if not hope, at least a spiritual resignation.

"We wanted to get to the point where you hear the record and feel what we feel," Tim explains. "There's a kind of empathy and connection there. For instance, that first song on the record talks of family and history. Sometimes it's hard to be in a family and go to gatherings when certain people aren't there anymore. There's this whole bittersweet thing about it."

The album bears a dedication to the Finns' mother, Mary, who passed away four years ago -- an upheaval that Tim calls "a watershed moment for any family. Our song 'Edible Flowers' touches on that mortality. We didn't sit down with the intention of writing about that, but when it came up, it came up."

With the opening lines "Everybody wants the same thing/Everybody wants the same thing/To see another birthday," "Edible Flowers" embodies all the despondence and redemption of Everyone Is Here. Tim's roughhewn voice crumples by the end of the verse, even as Neil's supple tenor takes over and soars through the chorus: "Bright lights dissolve/Like sugar deep inside you now/It all ends up the same somehow/I'm hardly here at all."

"People talk about contemporary music or contemporary art, but the themes are always the same," Tim notes. "People respond to them in the same way. Somebody said this album was all love songs, but not between a man and a woman. There's a lot of truth in that. There's a lot of love in our family and between Neil and me. But sometimes that love is very difficult and complicated. Whether it's between a man and a woman or brothers or friends or whatever, there are the same kind of struggles, and the same kind of beauty and strength to be found in them."

The occasional creative friction between the Finns has been exaggerated to Cain-and-Abel proportions in the press over the years; Tim famously quit Crowded House in mid-tour out of frustration at being relegated to a sideman in his little brother's band. Today, though, the two have found much more common ground from which to grow.

"The biggest change between us has been the fact that I have a family now," Tim says. "I did it much later than Neil, even though I'm the older brother. It's really much easier for us to understand each other and stand side by side, being dads and uncles as well as just brothers. We've learned to respect each other instead of being embroiled in the whole older-brother/younger-brother thing, which gets very tired after a while. But amid all that love and respect is a lot of tension. We've had to challenge and provoke each other. But ultimately, I think we got some great songs out of it. All of that makes for good music."

The Finn Brothers' turn toward intimacy and simplicity can be seen in the setup of their current tour. Accompanied only by a bassist, Tim Smith, the two will strum whittled-down renditions of their past hits alongside newer material. This arrangement was motivated less by cost control than by a desire to cozy up to the crowd. As Tim sees it, "Things get a little looser. Instead of just watching the show, the audience can really step inside us a bit more."

One thing is for sure: Tim and Neil won't be sporting frosted pompadours or plaid jumpsuits, as in Split Enz's glory days as an MTV staple. And neither does the duo have any desire to revisit the colorful and convoluted art rock of its youth.

"I look back on those times with affection, but sometimes it was clown-like," Tim admits with a laugh. "But to us, it was the music first. We had songs with long, rambling structures, but they were still pop songs. I've discovered over the last few years that I'm more of a classicist, in the sense that I'm more interested in things that recur. I'm much less interested in eclecticism. Rather than big textures and arrangements, lyrics are really the great area of challenge for me now, where once upon a time -- certainly with Split Enz -- there was a lot of belief in change and originality. Every record had to be different. I think I've grown through all that, though, and come out the other side."

Which is a hell of a lot more than you can say for the Buggles.

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller

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