The print advertisement for Neil Finn's new album, Try Whistling This, places the artist smack dab in the middle of the road -- literally. In the ad's picture, it's a fine day, the sky shielded by a thin layer of clouds. The artist, smartly clad in a dark suit, shoes and shades, is standing on a street in some anonymous neighborhood, the lower half of his attire blending perfectly with the black asphalt. The scene is bucolic, but Finn's expression is smug, as if begging the question, "What of it?" An inverted pyramid of large-to-small text points directly down to the crown of Finn's head. The intent behind the words is simple: to reintroduce Finn to his public, not-so-subtly refreshing us on his credentials. Yes, he was the singer and primary songwriter behind the insufferably clever hitmaking outfit Crowded House; yes, he was the other brother in Split Enz, one of the most influential new wave acts of the late '70s and early '80s -- even if the group could have used a proper hair and makeup stylist at times.
For Finn's new label, Sony/Work Group, the ad seems like the graphic equivalent of a desperation ploy, throwing resume bites out there into the info-saturated media morass in hopes that they'll find their target, whoever that might be. Yet, Finn -- whether he intended it or not -- betrays the look and posture of not really caring much either way: "Okay, so here I am; take me or leave me." Indeed, when questioned about the label's marketing efforts, Finn replies flatly, "There's nothing subtle about them."
Still, you can't blame Sony for playing up Finn's past glories, of which there are plenty. After all, he's been out of the loop for more than four years -- so long, in fact, that some were beginning to worry that his creative mechanism, which once seemed so invulnerable, had suffered irreparable damage. As it turns out, it was simply missing a spring.
In a way, Finn's first-ever solo effort, the new Try Whistling This, is a return to the dark, wistful, intricate cabaret pop that made Crowded House's sophomore release, Temple of Low Men, such a refreshing comedown after the band's deceptively chipper 1987 debut. Some fans, however, might see it as having more in common with the House's all-consumingly tasteful -- and lifeless -- last hurrah, 1994's Together Alone. It's worth noting that those releases, while sonically and texturally more complex than anything on Crowded House, stiffed commercially, as neither was willing to succumb to the easy hooks and inspired simplicity of early hits like "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong." For the record, Temple's belated follow-up, Woodface, tried to retrace simpler steps, but by then it was too late: Crowded House's success (in America, at least) would prove mercurial and fleeting: the band became a few-hit wonder. Crowded House deserved more for its trouble but was ultimately felled by a lack of interest, as grunge soiled the pop landscape.
So, you could consider Try Whistling This Neil Finn's definitive post-grunge statement -- and, for the most part, it's a statement that takes some patience to absorb. But the payoff for the effort is an album that consistently exposes fresh layers of turmoil and tunefulness. Befitting its title, nothing about Try Whistling This is easy. Its sampled enhancements and odd fusion of traditional rock instrumentation with other unconventional keyboard fare succeeds in disguising faint echoes of the more linear and uncluttered routes Crowded House once took to charm the listener.
"People say it takes a few listens," says Finn. "There are these sort of pictures and sound scapes; I wouldn't say they're fighting the melodies, but they're certainly presenting something else to you on first listen."
Whistling does have its more elementary moments: "Last One Standing" contains what may be Finn's most compelling chorus to date, while "She Will Have Her Way" is a jangle-pop ringer from start to finish. Yet, such characteristically catchy Finn output is countered by some rather unbecoming experimental diversions. "Twisty" is a drearily atmospheric minor-chord exercise in pathos hobbled by a cryptic cynicism. ("The killer was a priest / Took the first excuse / Made the madness seem cute lipped.") That track abruptly segues into "Loose Tongue," a desperate plea to a former lover (or is it his former band mates?) set uncomfortably to a raunchy chord progression and a scratchy, looped rhythm track. Finn closes out the song with the wrenching line: "How many gone to waste / A good man has been hung." To say that Finn has been battling some unresolved issues would seem like an understatement.
"There's a certain freshness to it for me," Finn says of the more instinctual way in which Try Whistling This evolved. "Things were coming out, and I was committing them to tape fairly soon after they arrived. They came out when they came out, these songs."
Neil Finn did a sizable portion of his growing up in the shadow of his older brother, Tim, who founded the arty Auckland, New Zealand, outfit Split Enz back in 1972. Neil was only 14 at the time, and he'd already taken a shine to piano and guitar, learning pop songs by ear. Loopy, somewhat pretentious progenitors of the eccentric marriage of punk and power-pop that would soon be tagged new wave, the Enz carried on fine without Neil's input for five years. The band moved to Australia in 1975, and two years later, Tim's kid brother was ready to come aboard. Neil was 19 at the time.
Thanks to its success overseas, Split Enz landed a deal with A&M Records in America. By then, Finn contends, he'd been finding the process of songwriting quite easy. The band's A&M debut, True Colours, bears that out. Neil's bittersweet "I Got You" became the Enz's first hit in the States, though the album only cracked the Top 50. Still, True Colours, with its intriguing balance of breezier Neil numbers and more intricate, emotionally over-the-top material from Tim, sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide. The band's next release, 1981's Waiata (Polynesian for "party"), continued in that vein, with the siblings more or less trading tunes -- the younger's more streamlined and accessible, the older's generally more ambitious and intense. Like its predecessor, Waiata, sneaked into the U.S. Top 50.
Although both brothers were writing, Split Enz was really Tim's show. He formed the band, he was older; it was the natural order of things. And in the end, the last two Enz albums, Time and Tide and Conflicting Emotions, seemed to suffer the weight of Tim's overbearing intellectualism. Not that it mattered in the end; the Enz's popularity was already slipping in America. By 1984, the band was through, and Tim went off to pursue what has been an uneven solo career, joining Neil on occasion to rekindle the chemistry of their on-and-off partnership.
"We work apart and together quite effortlessly, really," Neil says of his brother. "He's got some music that's been recorded which is really good. But he hasn't been in any desperate panic to do anything with it at the moment because he's been distracted with having a child."
Rather than going the solo route after Split Enz disbanded, Neil snatched up the band's last drummer, Paul Hester, and a Melbourne artist/bassist named Nick Seymour to form Crowded House, stripping his half of the Enz equation to its bare essentials. With the considerable help of producer/musician Mitchell Froom, the band recorded Crowded House, one of the most consistent pop/rock statements of the last 15 years. "We spent hours and hours crafting things back then," Finn recalls.
Their obsessiveness paid off: In the summer of '87, the album netted two major radio hits, and it seemed the hype-shy Neil Finn would finally be forced to bask a little. But the House's tenancy in the high-end reaches of the charts would be a short one. And while it looked like they might bounce back when Tim came around for Woodface, the band sounded bored -- and dead boring -- on 1993's Together Alone. Come the end of 1994, Neil Finn was basically alone.
"Paul Hester had left the band, and instinctively, it just didn't feel like the right place to be," says Finn of the breakup.
Moving from Melbourne, Australia (where he'd lived for 12 years), back to New Zealand, Finn retreated from the music business for a time. "I took a little bit of time to chill out and sort of re-evaluate," he says. "Although there was the Finn Brothers  album in there."
He took up painting at the urging of his close friend, artist/bassist Robert Moore; from there, he slowly got his juice back. "I never had any illusions about being a painter by career. But it helped me clear my head," Finn says. "It helped me get over the period of the band breaking up, and looking back. I was beginning to feel like a bit of a relic."
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Snapping out of his funk, Finn built a home studio. It became the site where much of Try Whistling This was recorded -- there and in a few spare rooms in his Auckland house, which served their purpose while the studio was under construction. Finn worked with various collaborators, including Moore, Mitchell Froom and Elvis Costello and the Attractions drummer Pete Thomas. But the album is essentially his own.
Artistically speaking, that's no big deal. With Crowded House, Finn did a lot of the studio work himself, writing nearly everything and overdubbing many of the instruments himself. But the biggest difference now is that it's his name on the cover. For the first time ever, the other brother has nowhere to hide.
"It has a slightly strange feeling to it," Finn says. "But on the other hand, I've been making music for about 20 years, and it's about time I owned up."
Neil Finn performs Monday, August 24, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $14. Ebba Forsberg opens. For info, call 629-3700.