House Trap: Neil Finn & Co. trip over their own discography.

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The last time an album came out under the Crowded House name, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Neil Finn had kept busy during the preceding 14 years—he’d recorded two worthy solo albums and two worthy collaborations with his brother Tim—but 2007’s Time On Earth was more than just a hiatus-ender. For the New Zealand group, it was also a reunion with a somber undercurrent, following as it did the suicide of original drummer Paul Hester. That double burden was ultimately (if understandably) a bit too heavy to bear gracefully. Free of such expectations, the new Intriguer should find Crowded House easing back into its sweet spot. And indeed, there are times—the woozy swirl of “Amsterdam” and the gentle swell of “Either Side of the World”—where Intriguer could be a continuation of Crowded House Version 1.0’s majestic swan song, 1993’s Together Alone. But that’s also where Intriguer stumbles, since each of the band’s first four albums had a distinct personality, even as common thread ran through them. (You can practically trace Finn’s evolution as a songwriter through the songs “Into Temptation,” “Four Seasons in One Day,” and “Nails in My Feet.”) Guided by Nick Seymour’s probing bass, “Archer’s Arrows” recalls “Private Universe,” only if that 1993 song’s arrangement had exploded and expanded along with the music itself. It’s a fine track on its own merits, but it feels a bit like it’s insisting on something the band was previously content to insinuate. It’s all the more ironic, then, that Intriguer, like its predecessor, lacks the immediacy that Crowded House previously bought to even its densest songs. But there are some genuine pleasures to be found, even if they require a little digging. The subtle but insidious “Falling Dove” makes excellent use of the Lennonesque streak that Finn has long been smart to only rarely indulge, rippling with echoes of “I’m So Tired” (and, curiously, the quiet verses of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”). Almost three and a half minutes in, “Isolation” breaks free from its draggy, limiting tempo and time signature with a clawing guitar solo that transforms the song into something more aggressive and off-kilter. And if Finn insists on including a song with the word “sun” in the title of every Crowded House album from here on out (as has been the case with the last three), he could do a whole lot worse than “Saturday Sun,” which opens Intriguer with a rush of energy. He could also do a whole lot better, however, as 1993’s perfect “Distant Sun” proved. It’s Intriguer’s great flaw that it not only has to compete with the memory of an imposing discography, but that it recalls it just enough remind us that it doesn’t measure up.