Neil Finn



NEIL FINN: DIZZY HEIGHTS


One by one and over and over, the figures leap from the cliff, through the clouds, and melt into the ocean.


Neil Finn had been playing on the computer with some images collected from the window of an aeroplane as it peeped above the clouds, when they abutted with footage captured in Greece, of boys jumping into the sea.


“I had an accident, where I put this keying effect on there, and suddenly saw these kids jumping through clouds, and I thought I’ll just use that. It was a bit of good luck.”


These grainy, absorbing images play over the exhilarating whirl of “Divebomber”, a song inspired by the 1950’s film of the same name, and one of several on his new album that evoke a sensation of sharp ascent, of giddy height, the free-fall thrill.


“It’s a risk, if you fly fast enough. With a rush of blood, you can bet you’ll forget anyone.”


Finn did not set out on his third solo album with a theme in mind. But by the time he came to call it after another track on the record, “Dizzy Heights”, it had become inescapable. “It crept up on me. I started noticing it in lots of places.


“You start off with a number of different threads and angles and demos, and they dictate the terms of the record. It’s only in the course of the process that you maybe get a feeling there’s a type of song emerging, or an atmosphere.”


The cloud jumpers epitomise, too, the Finn creative process: an attachment to a work-ethic and prosaic rigour - “a willingness to be disciplined, punctual and focused” – but designed for the arrival of something more, “to capture the little flashes of complete happenstance or good fortune that come your way – often from a mistake”.


An indirect inspiration for the height motif is mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953, five years before Neil was born. “Hilary had a huge impact on my generation of New Zealanders,” says Finn. “There’s something in the New Zealand DNA about trying to scale impossible heights. It’s something that can be very positive, but also has its downside.”


Amid its vertiginous, richly melodic swirl, Dizzy Heights contemplates love (“Better than TV”), loss (“Flying in the Face of Love”), ageing (“Recluse”) and allure (“Lights of New York”). It peeks, too - in “In My Blood”, for example - into the abyss.


Neil Finn was 18 when he was invited by his older brother Tim to join the trailblazing art rock band Split Enz. His career since might be measured as a series of bounds, the best-known being Crowded House, which he founded with Paul Hester and Nick Seymour after the breakup of Split Enz in 1984. Four albums, among them Crowded House and Together Alone, brought the group popular and critical acclaim around the world.


Along the way, there have been a host of collaborations, including with brother Tim and wife Sharon, and an array of names from Johnny Marr, Ed O’Brien, Eddie Vedder and most of Wilco. There have been two solo records, Try Whistling This and One Nil (or One All). And yet Dizzy Heights unmistakably marks a fresh leap.


With wife Sharon (bass) and sons Liam (guitar) and Elroy (drums), Finn travelled in two bursts to producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road studio in upstate New York, to record songs composed at his Auckland studio, Roundhead. With Fridmann (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips), and with contributions from New Zealand musician SJD, and wonderful string arrangements by Victoria Kelly. Finn has assembled a textured, heady sound, furnished and elevated by woozy strings and soaring vocals.


“I didn’t want to make it a solo record in a stripped back singer-songwriter sort of way,” says Finn. “I had a feeling Dave would be good at adding some odd shapes to the music. Which I always welcome – making things a little more expansive ... He is good at subverting things, and making things sound a bit messed up and not as obvious, rather than being too tasteful, which is always a temptation.”


Finn remembers an important English teacher, from four decades ago at his high school in Te Awamutu, a small rural town in New Zealand’s north island. His name was Ron Martin, and he raced them through the School Certificate syllabus in a matter of weeks, to clear space for reading, writing, arguing, making films.


Says Finn: “We had a very spirited debate one day in class about whether having big aspirations, big dreams, was a good idea given it can ultimately lead to disillusionment and isolation and at worst bitterness. There was quite a lot of variance of opinion, and I definitely came out for the, yeah, you’ve got to have the big dreams and big aspirations and it doesn’t matter, what the hell.


“I think of that sometimes when ambition, or having big dreams, seems slightly shallow and vain because the motivations, they shift – imperceptibly sometimes ...


“It’s a bit like those boys, jumping off that cliff. I keep thinking back to the one who runs to the edge and stops twice, before leaping off. Life carries on being like that.”


- TOBY MANHIRE
ENDS

Midlake (acoustic)

An antiphon is a call-and-response style of singing, from Gregorian chants to sea shanties. In the case of Denton, Texas’ favorite sons Midlake, it’s the perfect title for a bold response to a new phase in the band’s illustrious career, with a re-jigged line-up and a newly honed sound as rich and symphonic as it is dynamic and kaleidoscopic.


Anyone who knows Midlake’s preceding albums will recognize some constituent parts of Antiphon: the quirky psychedelia of 2004 debut Bamnan and Slivercork, the ‘70s soft-rock strains of breakthrough album The Trials Of Van Occupanther and the Brit-folk infusion of 2010’s The Courage Of Others. But their fourth album is another fascinating departure, but also a logical progression. The sound is simultaneously familiar and changed.


“It’s always through the scope of Midlake,” says vocalist/guitarist Eric Pulido, “but on Antiphon we wanted to embrace the psychedelia, style and nuance you might hear in bands from yesteryear while also being aware of music influences leading up to and present now. The result was less folk and more rock. Less nostalgic and more progressive. Now the sky’s the limit.”


This growth is down to the ambition and ability of Pulido (vocals, guitars, keyboards) Paul Alexander (bass, keyboards, bassoon, guitars, backing vocals), McKenzie Smith (drums, percussion) and Eric Nichelson (guitars, autoharp), plus Jesse Chandler (keyboards, piano, flute, backing vocals) and Joey McClellan (guitars, backing vocals) from Midlake’s last live incarnation. But it’s also down to the absence of Midlake’s former principal singer Tim Smith, who left the band in November 2012.


As Pulido explains, Midlake had finished touring in support of The Courage Of Others in November 2010. “We immediately returned to the studio, as we always did. With hindsight, that wasn’t a good thing to do.” The Courage Of Others had taken the best part of two years to make, and they found themselves struggling to achieve their aim. Midlake tried recording at the farm in Buffalo,Texas where they’d had success with The Courage Of Others, “but we knew something was missing,” Pulido recalls. The band took a break to play a few concerts, “to try out new songs and keep ourselves out there. One show was Bella Union’s 15th anniversary at the End of the Road Festival, which we didn’t realize would be our last with Tim.”


After some time back in Denton, Smith announced his departure. In the fall-out over the spoils of what had been recorded, the remaining members decided to start afresh, and wrote and recorded Antiphon in six harmonious months – bar ‘Vale’, which had been demoed without Smith during one of the sessions. With its ravishing, rippling textures symptomatic of Antiphon’s scale, ‘Vale’ showed how far they’d already come. The remaining nine tracks – the album is free-flowing in feel, concise in structure – confirm it’s very much Midlake, but uncannily rebooted, and relaxed.


The band had already validated their sublime instrumental mettle by backing John Grant on his award-winning 2010 solo debut Queen Of Denmark; now they had to step into new roles, collaborate on songwriting and have Pulido take over as frontman. He admits it wasn’t the easiest transition for any of the band but the experience was enormously freeing: “Antiphon is the most honest representation of the band as a whole, as opposed to one person’s vision that we were trying to facilitate.”


For example, ‘The Old And The Young’, a lighter, swinging version of the ‘new’ Midlake, has elements of “buoyancy” that Pulido says were long suppressed. “The chorus is catchy and has a lift, like we were releasing the dove! I love many genres of music - from Abba to Zappa, and I wanted to write in a way that wasn’t putting parameters around what it is we were creating. It was a more honest representation of who we really are.”


“The past is what got you to where you are now, so you shouldn’t be a malcontent about it,” acknowledges Pulido. That’s the gist of ‘The Old And The Young’, one of the lyrics on Antiphon that refers to embracing what is rather than lamenting what was. ’Provider Reprise’ is “a farewell, like the sound you might hear when you enter the gates of heaven!” The gentler ‘Aurora Gone’ concerns divorce while ‘This Weight’ concerns the selfishness of man, “turning away from this existence, to do your own thing,” says Pulido. “It could be just as much about me as it is about anyone.”


After the costumed antics of the band’s last two album covers, the color-saturated globe on Antiphon takes a different tack, and a broader picture outside of Midlake’s internal dynamic. “It conjures imagery of a celebratory fireworks display,” Pulido suggests “but it’s actually a diagram of an exclusive group of connected entities with disproportionate amounts of control over the global economy. It’s a beautiful way to show a darker side of things in the world.”


Antiphon has a similarly paradoxical nature – from stress and upset, something positive and creative has emerged. Midlake is dead, long live Midlake.

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Neil Finn with Midlake (acoustic)

Saturday, April 12 · Doors 7:00 PM at The Lincoln Theatre