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Critic's pick: Crowded House, 'Intriguer'

"When you're in luck, the world moves with you," muses Neil Finn during Either Side of the World, one of the many pop affirmations that make up Crowded House's sublime new album, Intriguer.

The song, in a span of 41/2 minutes, encapsulates everything that continues to make the veteran New Zealand band one of the most absorbing and mature pop forces on the planet. Lyrically, it pits isolations inevitably brought on by a consumed (and largely spent) world against the glories of simple human compassion. Musically, such conflict unfolds in subtle, orchestrated colors — light-as-air keyboards, a summery strum of guitar, even the simple, revivalesque beat of a tambourine. And, vocally, it beams with Finn's singing pouring over the music like late-summer sunshine.

OK, maybe that's a bit much. But you get the picture. In simpler terms, Intriguer is a continuation of the efficient pop devices that continue to work in Crowded House's favor.

The band has switched out producers this time (Jim Scott of Wilco fame replaces Ethan Johns, who produced 2007's equally regal comeback album, Time on Earth). There is also a continued reliance on the fine Finn clan that culminates with Isolation, a moody, psychedelic-inclined reverie cooled by the duet vocals of Finn's wife, Sharon, and a rampaging guitar coda from son Liam, who is already an established indie pop presence outside of the House.

Intriguer is something of a more promising album than its predecessor, though. Time on Earth, while one of the band's loveliest recordings, generously echoed the loss of founding drummer Paul Hester. Intriguer is the sound of a more emancipated House, a band that has mourned and moved on.

Especially striking in this instance is Twice If You're Lucky and Elephants. The former follows the same hopeful pattern as Either Side of the World, battling a life view in which "reality's shut you down" only to open into shimmering pop-filled promise. The album-closing Elephants is more dismissive and confident in temperament ("let's admit the world don't turn around us") as its waltzlike piano melody is encircled by atmospherics provided by the lap steel guitar of Mark Hart — the House's secret weapon for more than two decades — and the pedal steel guitar of guest Greg Leisz.

Overt rock 'n' roll isn't in great supply on Intriguer. The album-opening single Saturday Sun comes the closest to letting loose founding House bassist Nick Seymour and drummer Matt Sherrod. But even then, the sound never becomes intrusive. As it was when the debut hit Don't Dream It's Over commanded airwaves nearly a quarter-century ago, the music of Crowded House moves best in wide-open pop circles where it can circumnavigate the clouds and soak in all the sunshine it can.

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