I was very young when the original albums came out, but I have to imagine some people felt the same way back then. Woodface is a completely different tone and production style from the previous two. Together Alone is even more different still. I can easily imagine people saying about Together Alone, "I like this but it sounds nothing like Crowded House."
Personally, I hear Crowded House in Dreamers are Waiting. Not as strongly in every track but it's there. To the Island, Whatever You Want, Start of Something, Sweet Tooth are all very compact and hook-forward in a way I associate with Crowded House. Show Me the Way and Playing With Fire sound like Neil solo tracks from Try Whistling This & Dizzy Heights, respectively. I like Goodnight Everyone, but it's basically a solo Liam song. And the remaining ones feel like an evolution of Crowded House, faintly familiar but treading new territory.
I've also allowed myself the possibility that it doesn't have to actually sound like my conception of Crowded House. As you said, if these people on paper want to call themselves Crowded House, that is totally fair. And they have no obligation to sound any particular way. That said it sounds more like them than I anticipated, and I like the ways in which it doesn't, so I'm pretty satisfied so far.
As for the unusual chord changes, I actually associate that way more with Neil's solo stuff, Try Whistling This and One All especially. I feel like a lot of the classic Crowded House stuff is pretty diatonic and standard, like earlier Beatles, but stood out for the personality of the band. (There are a few exceptions like Pineapple Head, which is pretty weird harmonically)
Regarding the release of the early records...
I can't speak for anyone else, but I clearly remember the feeling of anticipation when each of the early records was released. Honestly, I think TEMPLE was probably the biggest surprise for me. The first album was overall just so FUN, and TEMPLE was a big departure. Nearly the entire album was melancholy (not a bad thing; on most days, it remains my favorite CH album). But the album wasn't a complete shock, because fans had already heard the band playing "Better Be Home Soon" and "Sister Madly" live. That definitely helped with the transition.
That was back when magazines were our primary source of news, although they occasionally got a mention on MTV News. When the band played MTV Unplugged, they made the bold move of playing "Four Seasons" and "Chocolate Cake," plus a cover of "Throw Your Arms Around Me," a song that few people in the US knew.
"Four Seasons" was breathtakingly beautiful, but it wasn't a huge departure from TEMPLE and "Into Temptation." "Chocolate Cake" was a shock, for certain, with all its pop culture references and zaniness. Still, getting to hear a preview of those songs helped with the transition to WOODFACE, so, again, it wasn't a huge shock.
When "Cake" was released as the first single from WOODFACE, it was instantly recognizable from MTV Unplugged. Smarter people than me have argued about whether or not it was the best first single from that record or whether it was representative of the album as a whole. But the fact that the hardcore fans already knew the song from MTV Unplugged made it easier to accept, I think. And the rest of WOODFACE felt, to my ears, like a combination of the first two albums. Still a bit of melancholy, but also some fun.
You're correct about TOGETHER ALONE. Sonically, it was a departure. Froom and Blake weren't big fans of reverb, but that clearly wasn't an issue for Youth. The album absolutely had an expansive sound, and I admit that I didn't love it at first. But this album, too, had help with the transition. The band appeared on a US morning TV program playing an acoustic version of "Distant Sun" (and they also played it live on the previous tour), so fans recognized that one.
But the thing about those first four records is that the songwriting is consistently stellar. Even with TOGETHER ALONE---yes, the clothes they're wearing are different, but the songs themselves are of a similar style and quality to the first three albums. There's not a huge departure in the songwriting department.
So, maybe others felt differently, but I felt like those first four records were of a particular style, and they felt like a progression to me.
Slowpogo, you wrote, "And they have no obligation to sound any particular way."
I disagree. If a music fan finds a recording by a band with a familiar name, that person has a clear---and fair---expectation that the music on the album will sound somewhat like the band's previous work.
I supposed we are getting into the difference between obligation and expectation, and there IS a difference. I mean, in that respect, you are correct. No artist is obligated to do anything. But I believe, for better or worse, that artists create expectations that obligate them to create in certain ways. In the old days, a record company signed a band based on that band's sound and style and talent. And the record company marketed that band based on those things, and fans became fans based on those things.
So, maybe the band isn't obligated to continue using a particular sound or style. But if they want to continue being contracted with the label and if they want to retain their fan base, they have to consider those expectations.
If there's one thing we've learned over the last 10-15 years, it's that a Neil Finn project can and probably will sound different from what we expect. So I would agree that Neil (solo) is under no obligation to sound a certain way. He's basically acclimated us to the idea that he is restless, creatively.
But using the name "Crowded House" comes with preconceptions. And Neil himself surely thought the same thing, because he wanted to bring in Nick and Mitch. He must have included them because he wanted that chemistry and sound. The alternative is that Neil used the name because he knew it would be more financially successful under the CH banner, but Neil has never seemed to make such decisions for purely financial reasons. And besides, he surely increased his retirement fund exponentially with the Fleetwood Mac tour money.
I just listened to DREAMERS again, and I have to admit, I liked it more. It's growing on me. And there are definitely parts that sound like the next progression of the classic CH sound. But I think the album is missing a "wow" song or two that clearly feel and sound like "Crowded House." There is no "Distant Sun" or "Mean to Me" or "Don't Stop Now" or "Twice If You're Lucky" here.
And maybe that's my fault, not the band's, because I think it's pretty clear that they made the album they wanted to make. Neil and the band deliberately chose to move toward a new sound.
As for chord progressions, in terms of theory, I'm sure there are few CH songs that are groundbreaking. I simply meant that Neil often writes chord progressions that are different than the usual three and four-chord rock standards. And he often goes in different, unexpected directions, melodically, which calls for interesting chord changes. Not every song, but enough to keep things interesting.