Nothing’s As Good As It Used to Be
Neil Finn and Trent Reznor Disappoint

When I was younger, I used to run out of gas all the time.

I had just learned to drive, and my mother had given me my first car, a 1984 Toyota Corolla. It was a stick shift, and the gas gauge was broken. The only way to tell when to refuel was to count the miles on the trip odometer. Every 300 miles or so, I’d need a fresh tank.

Only I didn’t quite believe the odometer, so I’d push my luck. I’d be driving along, watching the numbers flip over – 310, 315 – certain that I’d be able to squeeze a few more miles out of the old girl. So when the car started convulsing and making choking noises, and I’d scan around furtively, searching my internal map of the area for a gas station, I was always surprised. I remember the car sputtering to a stop on the side of the road at least four times during my time with it, and each time, I just couldn’t believe it.

The lesson I learned was, it’s important to know when you’re out of gas, and you need to stop and refuel. You may not think you’re running on empty, but the evidence doesn’t lie.

That’s a lesson Neil Finn could stand to learn. I consider Finn one of the greatest songwriters alive right now, but listening to his recent output, you’d never know it. You have no idea how much I hate writing this next sentence: Finn’s last great song was “Turn and Run,” all the way back in 2001. Before that, he was unbeatable. He had a string of excellent tunes with Split Enz before taking the ball and running with it in Crowded House. Very few pop albums I’ve ever heard can touch those four original Crowded House records, released between 1986 and 1993.

Then came the great first Finn Brothers album, written with his brother Tim, and Neil’s two sterling solo records, Try Whistling This and One Nil. That’s just a great run for any songwriter, and One Nil put a wonderful capper on it – it contains some of my favorite Neil Finn songs, “Turn and Run” included, but also “Driving Me Mad,” “Human Kindness” and “Anytime.” It’s just a wonderful little record.

And then? I have no clue what happened. All I know is, I can barely even get through the Crowded House reunion album, 2007’s Time on Earth. Finn’s prodigious gift for melody seemed to have deserted him entirely, and he turned in an overlong slog, full of dirges and sad experiments. I was hoping it was a one-time failure, a rare dry spell, and Finn would be back to business before long. But now here’s Intriguer, the new Crowded House album, and it leaves me with only one conclusion: Neil Finn is out of gas.

Now, let’s be fair up front. Intriguer isn’t nearly as bad as Time on Earth. For one thing, I’ve listened to the entire album three times, without feeling the intense urge to shut it off, eject the disc and throw it at something hard. But none of these 10 songs come close to the standard Neil Finn has set for himself. It’s a lazy, hazy kind of record, one that trades in mid-tempos and has virtually no hooks. If you’re not paying attention, it will just kind of drift by. Finn songs simply don’t do that – they grab you, make you stop what you’re doing to listen with everything you have.

Not these, though. Intriguer’s first third is its strongest, and for a while, you might actually think you’re hearing a creative rebirth. “Saturday Sun” is the closest Finn comes to writing a great tune here. It’s got a marvelous propulsive bass-and-drums opener (as a side note, it’s always good to hear Nick Seymour play again), and a chorus that, while not dazzling, is certainly one you’ll remember. It’s also the closest this album comes to rocking out. From here, it’s mainly acoustic guitars and gauzy moods.

“Archer’s Arrows” is similarly nice, with Finn reaching for that falsetto in the chorus. And “Amsterdam” has a sweet minor-key melody in the verses, and some very cool chords, even if it never quite stumbles on a hook. And that’s kind of it. All the other songs are forgettable at best, boring at worst. The only thing worth hearing in “Either Side of the World” is Mickey Hart’s ascending piano line. “Falling Dove” goes for “Blackbird” in the verses, and “Lady Madonna” in the bridge, but falls far short of both. It’s not a terrible piece of music, just a blah one, although it’s worlds better than the plodding “Isolation” (despite Neil’s wife Sharon and son Liam pitching in) and the apathetic “Inside Out.”

Many will tell you that “Twice If You’re Lucky” is classic Crowded House. I can see how this should be a great song. It has a wonderful lyric about second chances (“These are times that come only once in your life, or twice if you’re lucky”) and the verses have potential. If Finn had come up with a compelling chorus, this could have been a winner. But he didn’t. “Twice If You’re Lucky” never quite takes off, and wastes a fine lyric on a blah melody. Of all of these 10 songs, this is the one I most wish I could love.

And the record just peters out from there, trickling away with the middling piano ballad “Elephants.” In all, the album probably earns a C+. It’s not unlistenable, there’s nothing here that utterly destroys the Crowded House legacy, but likewise, there’s nothing that adds to it either. And it loses points from me simply because an album by one of the world’s best living songwriters ought to be better than this. It’s possible that Intriguer will grow on me, but Neil Finn songs shouldn’t have to grow on me. They should grab me from listen one.

I want to love Intriguer. I don’t want to be upset with Finn for resurrecting the Crowded House name, and then turning out mediocre work under it. But that’s where I am. I feel like none of these 10 songs would have made the cut on the first four Crowded House albums. I feel like Finn himself should be bored by these tunes. I feel like listening to Woodface again, to remind me of when he was great.

But most of all, I feel like Neil Finn needs to take some time off. He’s put out an album of new songs every couple of years for a few decades now, and it sounds to me like he needs to recharge the ol’ batteries. Intriguer’s a better album than he’s made in a while, but perhaps with an extended vacation, he can come back with new material that can stand with his best. I hope so, because I hate writing unimpressed reviews of Neil Finn albums. It’s just not fun for me.

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Speaking of a guy who needs to take a break, here’s Trent Reznor.

Last year, Reznor famously put Nine Inch Nails to rest. The final (for now) NIN album, The Slip, was offered as a free download from his website, and it sounded like a freebie – the songs were fairly standard NIN stompers, with a couple of ballads and instrumentals thrown in, and the record had none of his usual meticulous attention to detail and flow. It was a weird way for one of the most interesting artists of the last 20 years to go out, but once the Wave Goodbye tour wound down, Reznor was fairly quick to announce his new project.

It’s called How to Destroy Angels, and it’s a collaboration with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig. But other than that, you’d never know this wasn’t just more Nine Inch Nails material, left over on Reznor’s hard drive. HTDA’s self-titled six-song EP emphasizes the spookier, dingier, crawl-through-the-muck side of NIN (think “Reptile” and “The Wretched” and “Me, I’m Not” and a dozen others), and Maandig’s vocals certainly add a new dimension to it. But what’s here is essentially Nine Inch Nails with a woman singing.

I don’t dislike this, but it isn’t anything new for Reznor. The EP even takes on some familiar lyrical topics: “Fur-Lined,” which I can definitely imagine Reznor singing, is about losing control and turning into an animal, Maandig asking again and again, “Is this really happening?” “A Drowning” (essentially a clone of “The Wretched”) is about not being able to save yourself, a theme cleverly illuminated by the repeated line “I don’t think I can save myself.” And “BBB” stands for “Big Black Boots,” and is about tyranny: “No more thought control, you do what you’re told.”

Count me as one of the NIN fans who was hoping How to Destroy Angels would lead Reznor to new places. It still might – it’s early days yet, and a full-length HTDA album could be something else altogether. There are hints of it here, with the mallet percussion in “The Believers” and the lengthy ambient playout of “A Drowning.” But mainly, this EP still finds Reznor mired in his old lyrical obsessions, and sticking to the beats and synth noises that populated NIN records. Maandig may be providing the vocals, but the voice is Reznor’s, and it’s the same as it ever was.

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What’s that? Review something I like a lot? Okay, how about this: I think Sia’s new album, We Are Born, is awesome.

You may remember Australian singer Sia Furler from her time with Zero 7, but you most likely recall her solo song “Breathe Me” – it was used to haunting and brilliant effect over the closing minutes of Six Feet Under in 2005. She has a marvelous voice, quirky yet soulful, and “Breathe Me” is a superb little song. You’ll forgive me for expecting her career to take off in this country, but alas, she remains virtually unknown.

For a while, Sia followed the Sarah McLachlan route, writing pretty ballads and singing the hell out of them. (There are several on her last record, 2008’s Some People Have Real Problems.) But We Are Born takes a splendid left turn – it’s a nearly non-stop party album, full to bursting with danceable beats, slinky bass lines, hooky choruses and fun, fun, fun. There are some who will tell you I’m opposed to fun, like I can’t let my hair down and enjoy a party record. If it’s as well-crafted as this one is, though, I’ve got no problem. Sign me up for the dance floor.

I knew I was going to love this once I heard the chorus of “Clap Your Hands,” the second track. Over a thumpity-thump bass line and some nifty synth gurgles, Sia belts out nonsensical lyrics (“Clap your hands, clap your hands, turn the lights on my nights, this is life and we only get one chance”) and wraps them around a killer little melody. “You’ve Changed” is similarly kickass, opening with a toy piano, slipping into some Franz Ferdinand guitar-disco, and making full use of Sia’s powerhouse voice. The tempo of the record is on overdrive – you have to wait until track five, “Be Good to Me,” for the first slowdown, and track 10 for the second. And neither of those slow things down too much.

We Are Born was produced by Greg Kurstin, the male half of The Bird and the Bee, which accounts for some of the kitschy fun on display. Kurstin co-wrote five songs here, and plays keyboards on every track. But it’s Furler who’s driving this bus. You can tell by the way she throws herself into the vocals here – she’s always been a good singer, but on tracks like “Cloud” and “I’m in Here,” she outdoes herself. Perhaps the best product of the Furler/Kurstin partnership is “Never Gonna Leave Me,” a hookalicious ditty with a chorus that will stay in your head for hours.

The album takes on darker tones as it goes on. The amazing “Cloud” is an atmospheric delight, with a soaring chorus and some nimble guitar work from Nick Valensi. (Valensi’s guitar is all over this album, adding just the right amount of rock to these dance-y tracks.) “I’m In Here,” reprised at the end in a piano-vocal version, is a trippy little ballad with some nifty melodic turns. And “The Co-Dependent” has an appealing ‘80s vibe, with little bursts of guitar and handclaps and a dark minor-key chorus. But don’t worry, the party never really stops – the record’s most serious track is a more beat-heavy cover of Madonna’s “Oh Father” that closes things out.

But even that can’t dull the 50 minutes of awesome that precede it. Sia has taken a bold step into full-on danceable fun, and done it with style. Far from being merely an entertaining detour, We Are Born is Sia’s best album, and if I had my way, it would be the blueprint for dance-pop records from now on. I hope radio pays attention this time, but even if it doesn’t, you should. If you like smart, well-crafted fun, this is the album for you.

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Next week, thoughts on Matt Smith’s first season of Doctor Who, and a review of the new Marc Cohn album. And whatever else happens to spark my interest. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow my infrequent twitterings at

See you in line Tuesday morning.