A review of ‘Crowded House’, the DVD-Audio title by the group with the same name, ought to begin with something of a confession: Yes, it’s been out for over a year, and, despite full knowledge of its quality, there has been no review. The explanation is fairly simple – once you start to listen to this disc, you only want to continue listening, not write about it.
‘Crowded House’ is among the best DVD-Audio discs available. The special quality of the music, and its technical merit as an example of the DVD-Audio format are, to this listener, irresistible.
Between 1986 and 1993, Crowded House released four albums (there were two subsequent releases, a “best of” collection called ‘Recurring Dream’, and, as All Music Guide puts it, a 1999 album of “Crowded House leftovers and rarities,” entitled ‘Afterglow’). The band was launched in Australia as a trio, although its actual genesis was in New Zealand as an offshoot of the band, Split Enz. There were a few personnel additions and interim substitutions (including the addition of former Split Enz founder, Timothy Finn) throughout its existence, which ended in 1996. At all times, however, Crowded House featured the obvious musical genius of Timothy Finn’s younger brother – native New Zealander, composer, lyricist, guitarist, and pianist, Neil Finn.
In the latter years of Split Enz, Neil Finn joined his older brother Timothy and became its chief songwriter. In 1985, after older brother Timothy had decided to launch a solo career, Neil disbanded Split Enz and with drummer Paul Hester, went on to form Crowded House, recruiting bassist Nicholas Seymour as its third member. At that point, the Split Enz offshoot was transplanted from New Zealand to Australia.
‘Crowded House’ was the band’s first and most commercially successful effort, with two of its singles reaching the American Top Forty – ‘Something So Strong’ and ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Reviewers commonly refer to the music of Crowded House as either new wave or something close to that – songs that are short in length, short on instrumental solos, and, to an extent, compatible with music videos. Much of that is actually true of ‘Crowded House’, but the only real description gets offered by stopping the talk, and turning on the music. The album is one snappy yet alluring melody after the next, music that variously earns the description of soulful, emotional, often a celebration but sometimes solemn. Beneath it all, one detects in Neil Finn’s music a passion and meticulous respect for the art he is creating. The lofty quality of his work not only applies to the music – his deceptively simple lyrics always emerge from the music, never the other way around.
Before commenting on the specific tracks, however, the sonic attributes of the disc should be noted. Particularly when compared to its Compact Disc counterpart, as well as its own two channel advanced resolution version, this offering from Capitol Records underscores in particular the possibilities inherent in the DVD-Audio format, and surround music generally.
For purposes of comparison, I had on hand the 1986 Capitol Records Compact Disc version. Although there is nothing at all wrong with the CD, there is likewise nothing subtle about the comparison between its 44.1kHz red-book audio and any of the alternative tracks on the DVD-Audio disc. Purely from a fidelity standpoint, the high-resolution disc takes you a few notches “closer” to the music, and the DVD-Audio version will likely spoil for you any further listening of the CD. This is true not just of the 96kHz 24-bit multi-channel track on the newer release, but, to a lesser degree, also its other options – the 96kHz 24-bit two-channel advanced resolution mix, the Dolby Digital track, and the DTS track, the latter pair being DVD-Video backward compatible. It should also be mentioned that the advanced resolution stereo track is available to DVD-Video players, some of which will be able to output the signal digitally at 96kHz.
The 5.1 surround mix on Crowded House is among the most discrete mixes available on either DVD-Audio or multi-channel SACD. In fact, when it comes to use of the center and LFE channels, it is more discrete than any disc I’ve yet heard, judging the pair in contrast to the sounds that come from the other channels. The center is restricted exclusively to the vocals of Neil Finn – you won’t hear another thing from it – and the powerful bass response on this disc comes almost exclusively from the subwoofer. The bass extension is noteworthy not merely because it is almost exclusively directed to the subwoofer (as opposed to “sharing” much of it with the front main speakers), but also for the tight, calm thunder it delivers.
The surrounds are used aggressively, yet there is a beautiful and simple symmetry to the manner in which they get put in play – something that mirrors the style of Crowded House’s music. The surrounds are almost always “reactive” to the front array, not duplicative – they’re not pumping out the same thing that’s coming from every other speaker. Instead, where there is an acoustic guitar from the front mains, there is the response of an electric piano in the surrounds. Where there is the lead vocal from the front center, the background vocals come from the surrounds. Various percussion accents like cymbals are more prominent from the surrounds. There is sometimes a hypnotic melding of rhythm guitar and organ, delicately but clearly divided from front soundstage to surrounds.
The album was originally recorded in 1986, apparently in separate sessions – some at Platinum Studios, in Melbourne Australia, and some at Capitol Recording Studios. The surround mix was done by Steve Genewick of Capitol Studios in 2002, and was mastered for surround by Robert Vosgien, also of Capitol.
There are eleven cuts on ‘Crowded House’, and, if your listening experience is anything like mine over the last year, each one might prove your favorite at any given time. While I only had a passing acquaintance with Crowded House prior to the past twelve months, it says a lot to me that, after numerous listening, I still find something new in the music nearly every time I spin the disc (and I now have all of their material). This is particularly true of the 5.1 mix.
Time will not permit me to discuss each selection in the track listing, because I can only gush for so long – but each track is worthy of superlative comment. In ‘World Where You Live’, the simple rhythm and catchy melody of the first verse – Neil Finn singing from the center channel, cymbals and background vocals only from the surrounds – the dynamic staircase of the music is mirrored by the involvement of the surrounds. During the chorus, the vocal harmonies fill the room entirely, but with sounds converging in balance and discrete identity. I should point out that listening from the general area of one’s “sweet spot” is probably more important on this disc than most others, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that there’s usually only one audiophile per home, and that’s probably the location of the music-listening culprit in any case.
The same type of momentum or crescendo gets pulled off in ‘Now We’re Getting Somewhere’, as it begins with just the slow strumming of chords on an acoustic guitar and Neil Finn’s lead vocals, increasing in speed and presence from verse to verse, getting joined by what sounds like an accordion or squeezebox of some kind. Interestingly, the credits indicate that Joe Satriani appears on that cut – as a background vocalist. I don’t know if that is the Joe Satriani, but that’s the name on the credits.
‘Hole in the River’ is a song about the suicide of Finn’s aunt. The autobiographical nature of it is well known, and the somber nature of the lyrics become responsible for some unusual treatment in surround. In the song, Finn sings:
“There’s a hole in the river where my Auntie lies
From the land of the living to the air and sky
Left her car by the river left her shoes beside
Through the thorns and the bushes I hope she was…
Dreaming of Glory
Miles above the mountains and plains
Free at last”
So what do the lyrics of ‘Hole in the River’ have to do with a unique surround experience? They provide the context that enables it. Throughout the song, and especially toward the end, there is an unusual refrain of background vocals – for lack of a better description, the “wailing” of ghosts, as if in a haunted house. Without granting it the context of the music, as well as its artistic premise, one might suspect an effect that is off-kilter. Instead, the shrieking surround mix presents these “ghostly” voices in a fairly wild but striking surround experience. Ghostly shrieks are flying about the room in the midst of horns, low piano chords, and the cold subject of ice and death.
All of the music and the surround mix are simple and clean statements of sound. Often, there is a sudden-but-natural dynamic progression in both the melody and the mix. The straight-from-the-center lead vocals split the room sharply and discretely, as each channel delivers something unique to the overall presentation. To reiterate, this is the most “discrete” surround mix I’ve heard, reminding me of how I used to be fascinated by shifting left and right balance controls in later Beatles recordings.
The music of Crowded House seems to me to contain an obvious pop influence of The Beatles, although this is an observation commonly noted. Indeed, Finn’s lyrics are particularly reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s lyrics in an important respect – they are poetic, but not poetry: Instead, the lyrics are truly music, not literature.
Finn’s lyrics have been published in a separate volume, ‘Love This Life’, so named from a song he authored on the 1988 Crowded House album, ‘Temple Of Low Men’. As I reflect upon the themes and spirit contained in his lyrics, I could not think of a better title. His lyrics seem to emerge from the music, rather than the music being written around the lyrics. They can be playful without being frivolous and can be witty despite somber or even devout trappings – such as ‘Hole in the River’, or ‘Tombstone’ (“roll back the tombstone . . . let the saints appear”).
I listened to the disc in each of its offerings. I actually started with the CD followed by the two-channel advanced resolution version on the DVD-Audio disc because I prefer to “start” the comparison with the first chronological mix, simply to note if subsequent surround mixes leave something out, or change the emphasis. What I discovered was that the surround mix made everything else seem limited in comparison. This not only caused me to prefer the 96kHz 24-bit 5.1 version over the two channel counterpart – it also meant that I preferred the Dolby Digital and DTS versions over the two-channel advanced resolution track. While the latter is several steps above the Compact Disc purely from a standpoint of fidelity, it is the surround mix that really takes this great music to the next level.
The extras on the disc comprise lyrics, two music videos (‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, and ‘Something So Strong’), as well as an interesting version of a “discography” that scrolls from the cover art of Crowded House’s first album – this one – to its last. While it scrolls, there is a portion from one cut of each album played in two-channel PCM. For those who believe that everything in the world has at least one fault, I can point out two of them on this DVD-Audio – namely the two music videos. There could not have been much money in the budget back then, and, with flying dishes, irons, vacuum cleaners, and the smiling guys in the band cramping one another – after all, this is a “crowded house” – it is every bit as bad as it sounds, although the effort is one of obvious parody. Fortunately, it’s completely irrelevant to anything meaningful.
This is, and has been, one of the most impressive DVD-Audio discs I have heard. The music is always radiant and the surround mix is unique in its go-for-it approach to discrete surround. Buy this now, because Capitol Records needs a nudge – we need to tell them that we’ll buy all of the ‘Crowded House’ titles on DVD-Audio.