For Crowded House’s 1991 masterpiece Woodface, it was death by chocolate

Share this:

Never underestimate the power of sequencing the tracks on an album. A good opening song sets the mood and gets the listener primed for what’s to follow. Imagine Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town kicking off with “Factory” instead of the evocative “Badlands.” Or the relatively twee “Fixing a Hole” in the lead-off position on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It wouldn’t be the same experience, would it?

Artists usually choose the opening track carefully, if only to pique the curiosity of radio programmers, who will toss out the entire album if that first song doesn’t grab and shake them pretty quick.

New Zealand’s Crowded House made one of the best, and most enduring, pop/rock albums of the 1990s. Released in the latter part of 1991, Woodface is a masterpiece of emotive songwriting, evocative singing and exceptional playing. Singer/songwriter Neil Finn had moved way out in front of 1986’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” the biggest hit Crowded House ever landed in America.

It had an awkward gestation. The album, the trio’s third, was close to being mastered when Capitol Records president Hale Milgrim told Finn and his bandmates, and Crowded House’s producer Mitchell Froom, that it simply wasn’t good enough to put out. He suggested they go back into the studio.

At the same time, Finn and his older brother Tim (both of them had been cornerstones of the Kiwi new wave group Split Enz) were writing together for a side project. Neil asked Tim if Crowded House could have these new songs for the revised Woodface; Tim agreed but insisted he become a full-fledged member of the band.

“The lines between what was going to be a Finn Brothers record and a Crowded House record became very blurred,” Neil Finn told me in 1993. “And in the end we decided it was better to try and make one good album than try and split yourself between two, and not do justice to either.”

That’s how “Weather With You,” “It’s Only Natural,” “Four Seasons in One Day,” “There Goes God,” “How Will You Go” and three others came to be on what should have been Crowded House’s breakthrough album – featuring stellar, Everly-esque brotherly harmonies from Neil and Tim, Woodface is absolutely brimming with first-class, catchy songs, with gorgeous melodies and that unmistakable Finn melancholy.

That’s not what happened. By all accounts, Crowded House (over the objections of management and label) insisted that the first single, and the album’s lead-off track, be the surreal dance song “Chocolate Cake.” The Finn/Finn collaboration was a tongue-in-cheek attack on Americans and their obsession with excess and celebrity. “Chocolate Cake” took potshots at everyone from Tammy Faye Baker to Andrew Lloyd Webber (“May his trousers fall down as he bows to the queen and the crown”). The joke wore thin quickly.

“‘Chocolate Cake,’ in hindsight, may well have undone us,” Neil Finn said. “It started off as a live song, which was tremendous fun to play. But as a first single a lot of people were put off by it. It was confrontational, which was good in a sense — people either loved it or they hated it. But maybe it gave an impression of the album which was quite remote from what the album actually was.”

While Woodface became the band’s best-selling album in Great Britain, topped the chart in New Zealand and was a huge seller in Australia and Japan, it hit the U.S.A. with a resounding thud. It peaked at No. 83 in Billboard. “Chocolate Cake” had been issued early, as a CD single and accompanied by a garish, expensive video.

It wasn’t that “Chocolate Cake,” however humorously, derided American bad taste. It simply wasn’t a very good song. Radio didn’t play it, it did not chart, and none of the followup singles — including “Fall at Your Feet,” “Weather With You” and “Four Seasons” — got any love at all. It’s likely that program directors never got past “Chocolate Cake.”

Had they skipped ahead to Track 2, “It’s Only Natural,” they would have opened a door to something magical. Woodface, despite being a little too long (I could do without “All I Ask,” and “Italian Plastic,” but maybe that’s just me) is the strongest recording this little Kiwi band ever made. After 20-plus years, I’m still hearing new things in its marvelous tracks.

A frustrated Tim Finn left Crowded House in the middle of the Woodface tour, and the original trio (augmented by pianist Mark Hart) made Together Alone, without producer Froom, a year later.

Drummer Paul Hester, angry, homesick and weary of America’s continuing indifference to Crowded House, quit after a concert in Atlanta in 1994. Hester’s departure effectively broke up the band, although Neil Finn, Mark Hart and bassist Nick Seymour re-convened as Crowded House for 2007’s Time on Earth and then again in 2010, five years after Hester’s suicide.

The final verdict on Woodface, and its death by chocolate, arrived when Neil Finn was programming Recurring Dream, the posthumous Crowded House collection. He included all the band’s singles — except one.

You guessed it.

“For a variety of reasons,” Neil Finn explained at the time, “just as a piece of music ‘Chocolate Cake’ didn’t wear very well for me.”

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung spent 35 years as a music journalist before giving it up for a (relatively) cushy job in public relations. His essays appear in more than 100 CDs (including the Cat Stevens Box Set, Stephen Stills’ 'Manassas Pieces' and Chicago’s 'Stone of Sisyphus'). He is also the author of 'Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down.' See; contact Something Else! at reviews@
Bill DeYoung
Share this: