I missed most of the great music of the '60s the first time around (no, it wasn't because of a drug-induced haze - I just wasn't born yet). But you don't need to feel too sorry for me because the '60s are coming back. The country is currently in the throes of a nostalgia craze - the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, the Moody Blues and many other groups we thought we'd never hear from again are touring in some form or another.
But there is also some new music out there that harks back to the '60s. If you are one of those people who listens to your "Big Chill" soundtrack a lot and insists that pop music has been a wasteland since those songs came out, it's time to buy a new album or two. I especially recommend Crowded House's "Temple of Low Men," a Beatlesque work thick with thought and harmony and hooks. The Smithereens' "Green Thoughts" is another great album. It sounds like the Hollies but with a little less harmony and a little more melancholy."Temple of Low Men" is the followup to Crowded House's commercially successful and critically acclaimed self-titled debut. As the name implies, this is a humble work. The men in the House - lead singer/guitarist Neil Finn, drummer Paul Hester and bass player Nick Seymour - have not gotten too entranced with their success. I'm glad of this, but I sort of wish they'd lighten up a little bit. It's hard to find a picture of them smiling, and there aren't any matches for the out-and-out exuberant songs like "Something So Strong" and "Now We're Getting Somewhere" that were on "Crowded House."
But don't think "Temple of Low Men" lacks joy. The band just isn't as jubilant as one might expect successful pop stars to be. But even when Finn, the band's main songwriter, writes about something dreary, his harmonies will move you and you will find yourself singing along. Finn really knows how to hook you. "Kill Eye" is probably my least favorite song on the album, and yet I find myself singing it.
So what's the problem with "Kill Eye"? Well, to make a short story long, Finn seems to have this habit of delving deep into his psyche or somewhere and coming up with strange things, such as "kill eye/half way to hell and beyond/I wanna hug my mother/and the sky above her/I want the earth to open up." I confess, a lot of this is lost on me. I still find myself singing the song, though. "Sister Madly" is like this, too. It's got a catchy little rock-a-billy tune, but the words kind of made me shake my head. "Sister Madly waking up the dead, systematically waking up the dead." Hmmmmmmmm.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. "Kill Eye" is the second cut on the album (if it was the first, it might have dampened my enthusiasm just a bit). "I Feel Possessed," an edgy love song, is first. Every part of this song except for the chorus sounds unsettling, maybe a touch discordant. The song makes one feel the hesitancy, the fear of falling in love. But then the chorus opens up and washes that away. "I just want to be there when it happens again." And while the song ends with a note of doubt, you know that's just the way love is.
And "Into Temptation" makes you feel like you know just what temptation is. As Neil sings "the cradle is soft and warm," so is the music.
The deep respect Crowded House has for success comes through in "Mansion in the Slums," a funny, biting song. "The taste of success lasts half an hour or less. . . . What I mean is, would ya mind if I had it all. . . . And you laugh at yourself while you're bleeding to death. . . . It'll soon be over."
Many of the songs on the album are about love. "Never Be the Same" is an upbeat entreaty to save a relationship. The song has a feeling of motion to it, and Finn pleads, "Don't stand around like friends at a funeral" - do something. And the next song sort of refutes any previous cynicism. Finn says he's "Gonna Love This Life" despite all his complaining and is trying to persuade someone else to do the same.
The last song on the album, "Better Be Home Soon," is the first single. It's an ultimatum in a ballad's clothing that begins with just Finn and his acoustic guitar. The rest of the band joins in after the first verse, but the song remains strong through its simplicity.
If you listen closely (and are familiar with Finn's previous band, Split Enz) you can hear Neil's brother Tim singing background vocals. Tim left before Split Enz broke up at the beginning of the decade, and Tim and Neil's relationship was not thought to be particularly close. Neil has insisted there is no animosity, however, and this cooperation seems to prove it. It's good to hear them sing together. It's good to hear this whole album.
It's also good to hear the Smithereens. And more and more people are getting the chance, as this quartet ventures off the college campuses (where it has had lots of success) and into the pop mainstream. To some, that is a fate worse than death, but I don't think so. They haven't had to compromise their energetic, live-sounding, guitar-driven style to achieve success.
The band's latest album is a theme piece, and with a title like "Green Thoughts," the theme is, not surprisingly, jealousy and breakups. Pat DiNizio, the lead singer and songwriter, spares the melodrama and has written some solid songs. The band sounds very real. In the last song on the album, DiNizio sings, "Green thoughts/come around every now and then/when they bring you down/run away while you can." You certainly don't have to run from these "Green Thoughts."