Perhaps the first thing the listener needs to do with Out Of Silence is forget about the circumstances in which it was created. For four consecutive Fridays in August, Neil Finn has live-streamed the making of his fourth solo album via his Facebook page, releasing the singles More Than One Of You and Second Nature on the 11th and 18th respectively. The recording was completed in a final four-hour session on the 25th.
Clearly, this approach excited Finn and his fans. But when the process is forgotten, all that is left behind is the music itself: piano-based orchestral pop, with a minimum of drums and percussion. The album is compact at 35 minutes, and complex in its instrumentation and arrangements, scored by composer Victoria Kelly. It is beautiful on the surface and yet seemingly bottomless: these songs are too subtle and densely textured to take in all at once.
But it feels like easy listening; as natural as breathing. Finn’s last album Dizzy Heights, produced by Dave Fridmann with Kelly also on board, was unusually hard work by comparison. And it’s here that you appreciate the craft in these songs and the manner in which they’ve been executed. The songs were recorded quickly, but tightly rehearsed: you may have been a fly on the wall, but that doesn’t mean Out Of Silence was made on the fly.
Chameleon Days exemplifies how Finn can make the most sophisticated pop music sound like the simplest thing in the world. Opening with ghostly vibraphone and strings, it’s joined by Finn on piano, singing in a high falsetto, and one of the album’s few drum tracks. The lyrics shapeshift with the melody: “That must be how the music is meant to be played / The colours change in our lives / We all have our own chameleon days.”
There is so much going on in this song that it feels almost unstable, especially when it hits a surging bridge, with backing vocals doubling down heavily on the beat. But Finn’s piano keeps returning to the hook that keeps it anchored, at least until its final, breathtaking coda, where it’s finally cut loose and allowed to float away. It’s one of his loveliest creations, as good as Fall At Your Feet or Private Universe.
Second Nature is the other track with drums, played at a brisk gallop, and the most familiar in style to Finn’s work with Crowded House. But, as a steady quiver of violin and cello keep pace, male and female backing vocals alternately blend and diverge. It’s the most baroque of pop songs, reminiscent of Andy Partridge’s later work with XTC, but a deserving single, immediate in its appeal.
Other songs are much darker, as Finn goes into territory he’s rarely explored lyrically. The Law Is Always On Your Side is a short but moving piano ballad about a police killing. Terrorise Me is a song inspired by the horrible events at the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015, Finn looking terror straight in the eye and refusing to be cowed: “If you want to terrorise me / Make me hate you in return / Love is stronger when it hurts.”
Finn has often been compared to Paul McCartney – famously the former Beatle deferred to Finn when asked how it felt to be the greatest songwriter alive – but at moments like this, he’s closer to George Harrison: a mystic determined to appeal to our better angels. “I think that we can fight and still be friends / Words are hard to control, and some better left unspoken,” he sings in the opening song, Love Is Emotional.
At the top of it all is Finn’s voice. Of all his outstanding qualities, perhaps it’s his singing that’s the most undersold: completely distinctive, unforced and gentle, whispering melodies only he could conjure in your ear. Out of Silence sees him at his most contemplative and tender, at the most troubled of times. If you missed out on watching this album being born, rest assured the songs will wait for you.
ONE of the world’s great independent labels, Flying Nun Records was founded in 1981 by Christchurch-based Roger Shepherd. But the locus of the emerging New Zealand punk and post-punk scene and many of its key players were further south, in Dunedin: all bar one of the following bands, Christchurch’s JPS Experience, hail from the university town in the region of Otago. At its peak, the label was home to dozens of bands and 10 of the best is exactly that (with apologies to Bailter Space, Alastair Galbraith and Peter Gutteridge, all storied figures in the New Zealand pop history). Shepherd walked away from the label in 1999, selling it to Warner; in 2010, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, who owns a quarter-share, helped him buy it back again. Large chunks of the label’s catalogue are being reissued by Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks, with the Clean, the Chills and the Bats – who release their seventh album, The Deep Set, today – remaining active to this day.
The Clean Anything Could Happen
Formed in 1978 in Dunedin, the Clean’s first single Tally Ho!, released a few years later, put the fledgling Flying Nun Records label on the map, reaching the top 20 with its nagging keyboard riff. (Disclaimer: it probably wouldn’t have taken a huge number of sales to reach the New Zealand top 20.) From there the band, formed by brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and future Bats leader Robert Scott, carved a reputation as probably the most influential band on the label with a sound heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. But their best song, Anything Could Happen, would do Bob Dylan proud with its folk-rock chord changes and dry, deadpan lyrics.
The Verlaines Death And The Maiden
Another key figure in Flying Nun’s early history, Dr Graham Downes – he heads the department of music at the University of Otago – would bring classical influences to the Flying Nun sound on their 1987 album Bird-Dog. You wouldn’t have seen that coming on their first single four years earlier, which had Downes ecstatically chanting the name of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, from whom they took their name (not, as is sometimes thought, Television’s Tom Verlaine). Features the immortal lines “You shouldn’t talk to me / Find better company / There’s better things to know / You’ll only end up like Rimbaud.”
It was Martin Phillipps that played that nagging riff in Tally Ho!, but he already had the Chills who, over well over a dozen line-up changes, became the greatest singles band New Zealand produced after Split Enz, achieving enduring success with a sound that was alternately pitch dark and lighter than air. Released in 1984, Pink Frost combined both in the same song, shifting abruptly from a spry opening guitar hook to a haunting, bass-driven pulse, as Phillipps tells a deeply unsettling story of loss and survivor’s guilt.
It’s tiresome to point to Look Blue Go Purple’s gender – something that followed the five-piece wherever they went, much to their justified irritation. But the fact remains there weren’t too many women on Flying Nun, and the band’s three EPs are a critical and often unsung part of its legacy. Cactus Cat is from the second of them, released in 1986. This joyously nonsensical paean to Denise Roughan’s moggy rides along on a couple of chords, punctuated by two backwards guitar solos played by former Chill Terry Moore.
After four years in the Clean, bass player Robert Scott realised he needed a new vehicle for his own prolific songwriting. With the Bats, he has explored endless variations on an instantly identifiable sound. They nailed that sound on this ebullient 1986 single: bright, mid-tempo guitar pop, with the stinging lead work of Kaye Woodward and Paul Kean’s rumbling bass over the top giving a harder edge to Scott’s nasal, wistful vocals.
There were more critical bands in Flying Nun discography than the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, but I can’t ignore the hypnotic opening cut from this often overlooked band’s excellent second album The Size Of Food, from 1990. Incredibly, soon after a lawsuit was served by the estate of Jean-Paul Sartre, forcing them to change their name to the JPS Experience and, while it almost certainly had nothing to do with it, they were never quite the same again.
By the turn of the 1990s, the Chills and the Straitjacket Fits looked like the bands most likely to cross over to major success, with American record deals and more polished – dare one say cleaner-sounding – studio recordings. It didn’t hurt that the Straitjacket Fits were the best-looking band on the label, either. Written by Andrew Brough, the breathtaking Down In Splendour, from the band’s second and best album Melt, shows off the band’s exquisite vocal harmonies and twin-guitar interplay without losing any of the tension that would ultimately destroy the group.
The Straitjacket Fits are privileged with two entries on account of them being blessed with two very different songwriters. The prettiness of Down In Splendour was the jewel in a crown of thorns: the Fits’ spikier side was dominated by brooding leader Shayne Carter. This live recording of APS (also from Melt) demonstrates their explosive power on stage; at its conclusion Carter checks: “are everyone’s strings intact?” But in barely the next breath, he cattily introduces Down In Splendour “for all you grandmas out there”; soon after Brough was unceremoniously ejected from the band, announced with a gleeful press release: “No more slow songs!” Unfortunately, it destroyed the band’s delicate balance; their final album Blow was a disappointment.
The 3Ds – Dominic Stones, Denise Roughan and David Saunders – emerged late in the 1980s, quickly added another D, David Mitchell for good measure and, like the Straitjacket Fits, based their considerable attack on a twin-guitar sound. But where the Fits exuded menace, the 3Ds were as bright, playful and often unhinged as their lurid cover artwork. Beautiful Things (from 1993’s The Venus Trail and sung by Roughan, previously of Look Blue Go Purple) caught them at a rare tranquil moment, with a gliding chord progression and beatific lyrics: “Don’t you see, beautiful things can be / Waiting outside your door, for all to see.” A famous story about the band goes that during a support slot on U2’s ZooTV tour, an associate nicked a bottle of wine from U2’s dressing room, leading the promoter to inform the band they would not be paid. Bono intervened, gave them another bottle of wine and told the promoter they would be paid double.
Chris Knox Not Given Lightly
Talisman, spiritual heartbeat and conscience of New Zealand punk, Chris Knox all but started the movement in Dunedin with his bands the Enemy, then Toy Love. He later maintained a prolific career as one-half of the Tall Dwarfs, as a soloist, and as a newspaper columnist and cartoonist. His best-known tune, released in 1989, was a plain-spoken love song to “John and Liesha’s mother”, and featured just a percussion loop and fuzz guitar. Tragically Knox was cut down by a severe stroke in 2009 that has left him unable to say more than a few words; a tribute album to raise funds for his ongoing rehabilitation featured Yo La Tengo, the late Jay Reatard, Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan, as well as many of the bands mentioned above.
10. PAUL KELLY/KEV CARMODY – From Little Things Big Things Grow (1991, 1993)
The ultimate compromise choice on this list. Both Kelly and Carmody should feature individually in any compilation of great Australian songs, but which ones? In the end, I’ve gone for this co-write, initially recorded by Kelly for his 1991 album Comedy, then by Carmody (featuring Kelly) in 1993 for Bloodlines, with a single released the same year. It’s the story of the birth of the land rights movement in Australia, a campfire folk tune that a young Bob Dylan would have been proud of, and at least the equal of anything in either songwriter’s canon. Despite its 11 verses, it’s a story that tells itself; a masterclass in protest songwriting that wears its moral lightly.
9. FLAME TREES – Cold Chisel (1984)
Khe Sanh may be their signature tune, but this for me is the better one; a piece of heartland rock to rival anything by Bruce Springsteen: a small town, you and your mates, a boozy night of nostalgia, and a girl you can’t forget. Don Walker peels off line after line of unforgettable imagery here, and that middle-eight – “Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field in our day” – never fails to stop me in my tracks. All credit, though, to Jimmy Barnes, who brings those words to life with the best white soul vocal this side of John Fogerty. After that, Barnes’ entire career has seemed like one long scream, as though he took the line “Ah! But who needs that sentimental bullshit anyway?” to heart. What a crying shame.
8. MIDNIGHT OIL – Power And The Passion (1982)
“People, wasting away, in paradise.” With that arresting opening line, Midnight’s Oil’s acerbic broadside to the I’m alright, Jack complacency of suburban Australia – along with US Forces, both from the band’s Armageddon-themed breakthrough 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – firmly established their political bona fides, while catapulting them into the top 10 for the first time. To do it, they deconstructed their earlier surf-rock sound with the aid of producer Nick Launay, creating a new template that was complex, attacking and immensely powerful. Rob Hirst’s solo ensured he topped “best drummer” rock magazine polls for a decade to come, and a final blast of brass pushes this most ambitious of songs over the edge.
7. CROWDED HOUSE – Don’t Dream It’s Over (1986)
Aside from being an enormous hit both locally and in the US (where it reached number two), I’m not sure that Don’t Dream It’s Over can lay claim to any wider significance. It’s just a superlative pop song. Neil Finn’s bright, chiming guitar riff sets the pace and tone, and there’s the lovely Hammond organ break that many have compared to Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale. But really, this is all about the chorus, purpose-built for couples around the world as they do their best to outlast the kitchen-sink trials of everyday life: “Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over / Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in / They come, they come, to build a wall between us / You know that they won’t win.” Even non-smokers like me needed a lighter to fire up for that one.
6. THE SAINTS – (I’m) Stranded (1976)
The first independently produced rock single in Australia, the Saints’ mighty debut not only beat fellow punk precursors Radio Birdman onto plastic, but also British counterparts the Damned and the Sex Pistols. In doing so, they inspired hundreds, if not thousands of others around the world, while kicking off a social revolution in their native Brisbane – which they quickly left. Dubbed “Single of This and Every Week” by British magazine Sounds after exported copies began arriving in Old Blighty, Stranded arrived like an emergency telegram from a lost land: such is its urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo. (The B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note.)
5. THE SEEKERS – The Carnival Is Over (1965)
For a long time, I was no fan of the Seekers. Simpering folk tunes like Georgie Girl did nothing for me. Then, in early 2009, I attended RocKwiz’s salute to the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, and Judith Durham closed the show with this old Russian folk tune (no surprise there; aside from Seekers gigs, the song has become synonymous with bringing the curtain down on major events in Australia). The purity of Durham’s voice, her power and control, cut through the still night air. I think I was among the first on my feet for the inevitable but deserved ovation. It’s been covered by everyone from Nick Cave to Boney M.
4. THE EASYBEATS – Sorry (1966)
In compiling this list, I’ve tried to strike a balance between genres, eras, cultural impact and unapologetic, if occasionally boneheaded personal favouritism. It’s purely the latter that leads me to choose this song over Friday On My Mind. That’s a masterpiece of pop sophistication, but this is raw R&B, as tough as anything cut by the early Rolling Stones, and thus I simply prefer it. Marking the dawn of Easyfever, it confirmed rock & roll was here to stay in Australia: George Young’s choppy rhythm guitar prefigures his younger brothers’ work in AC/DC, while Stevie Wright’s exuberant vocals – particularly his “I-I-I-e-I-I-I-I” outro – are completely infectious.
3. THE WARUMPI BAND – My Island Home (1987)
It’s funny that a song occasionally touted as an alternative national anthem is not about Australia at all, at least not per se. The Warumpi Band were formed in Papunya, in the deserts west of Alice Springs, and this achingly homesick song was written by the band’s white guitarist, Neil Murray, for their proud Yolngu singer: “home” in this case is actually the late George Burrawanga’s birthplace of Elcho Island, in north-east Arnhem Land. Burrawanga’s high, spiritual voice is perfect for the tune’s stately, hymn-like build; if your pulse doesn’t quicken with the tempo at 2.51, best check you’ve still got one. Belatedly made famous by Christine Anu’s hit version in 1995, but really, you can’t beat the original.
2. THE TRIFFIDS – Wide Open Road (1986)
As lonely, desolate and beautiful a song as any ever written, Wide Open Road is also based on the simplest of cyclical chord progressions (G-C-G-Em-Am). The song soars on Jill Birt’s sparse keyboards – note, again, the long, droning note that introduces the track, producing a vast, panoramic vista – with Alsy McDonald’s unusual kick-drum rhythm keeping the whole thing from floating away. Atop it all is the late, great David McComb’s commanding baritone: never forced, committed only to the story at hand, he matches naturalistic imagery with powerfully erotic longing. This is songwriting as a roadmap to the soul.
1. AC/DC – It’s A Long Way To The Top (1975)
It was hard not to put Wide Open Road here, but for me, It’s A Long Way To The Top is the one that still says it all. It exemplifies fundamental truths, not only about rock & roll, but AC/DC: the heart of the band is neither Angus Young nor Bon Scott (who liked to refer to himself as “the lightning flash in the middle”), but Malcolm Young. AC/DC are a rhythm machine: without Malcolm’s distinctive chop, the band is nothing; without the riff, rock & roll ceases to exist. Bon Scott’s high, wild vocal is joyous; his lyrics as economical as the music. This isn’t about the rock & roll lifestyle: it’s a metaphor for life itself, and it’s as real as it ever was – bagpipes and all.
AND HERE’S 10 MORE THAT COULD’VE/SHOULD’VE MADE IT …
The Loved Ones – The Loved One (1965)
Not Drowning, Waving – Sing Sing (1987; 1991)
You Am I – Purple Sneakers (1995)
The Master’s Apprentices – Turn Up Your Radio (1970)
Lime Spiders – Slave Girl (1984)
Ed Kuepper – The Way I Made You Feel (1991)
X – I Don’t Wanna Go Out (1980)
Died Pretty – DC (1991)
The Stems – At First Sight (1987)
The Passengers – It’s Just That I Miss You (1979).