Friday, February 10, 2012

Craig Finn

So, it's a Friday – not a Tuesday – and it's been more than 2 weeks since a new post. What gives? Well, during that time, your blogger has managed to become engaged and celebrate the retirement of one of this space's most dedicated readers. In other words, it's been a bit busy. That is unfortunate, because the last few weeks have seen the release of some tremendous new material, and I'm determined to capture it all, even if it means some off-Tuesday posts and scattershot schedules. By early March, things will likely have returned to normal sinus rhythm.

We start this bevy of reviews with the solo debut from the frontman of one of NMT's favorite acts: The Hold Steady's Craig Finn and his 11-track offering, Clear Heart Full Eyes, out January 24 on Vagrant Records. Your blogger has long maintained that no one in the world could possibly love and appreciate their job more as Finn does while at the helm of The Hold Steady (NMT). The man exudes exuberance and joy while rattling off his upper Midwest narratives on top of the band's charging rockers, and appears to be constantly amazed he isn't your accountant. Here, the narrative approach is no less diminished, although he tones down the revelry. The solo material is far more restrained, somber and a tad more musically adventurous than his work with his primary artistic outlet, which is reasonable ground for a solo effort.

It doesn't take long for Finn to distinguish his own melodic space here, through the soupy and trippy leadoff, "Apollo Bay." With lyrics circulating through just a handful of concepts, hazy electric guitar warble and wafting keyboard accents, it's a sound that would probably fall flat in The Hold Steady's muscular post-punk. The surreal canvas comes especially informed by the Texas settings where Finn recorded the album, at The Mansion in Austin. His collaborators are likewise largely Texas-based, with White Denim (NMT) drummer Josh Block manning the kit, Ricky Ray Jackson of the Austin-based outfit Lomita covering many of the guitar parts – in addition to Finn – while Catherine Davis, another Austinite, on loan from Zykos, provides flavor on piano, keyboards and organ. And although not as long as the opener, "When No One's Watching" maintains the pace and tone of its predecessor, albeit with a touch more hallmark Finn narratives, as we hear about "Wendy at the Wagon Wheel," "the wreckage that you left and the places that you slept," and "Jesus and the coffee and the talking."

Interestingly, it's the subject of the latter of these phrases – Jesus – which returns throughout the course of the record, in ways that mark new ground for Finn's exploration of his faith in his work. Sure, anyone listening to just a handful of Hold Steady tracks would have no trouble spotting Finn's recurring Twin Cities-based Catholic parochialism, a convenient and distinctive tool for setting, plot or character development. But here, it's more personal, direct and expansive, beginning on the track that hews most closely to his Hold Steady foundations – "No Future." The punchy rock number references Christ's crucifixion in its bridge, but also points back to his main band's "Constructive Summer" and his want to designate his rock ancestors as his true saints. While before he anointed "Saint Joe Strummer" as his "only decent teacher," he now looks to "Good old Freddie Mercury" as "the only guy that advises me" and notes that the "best advice that I've ever gotten was from good old Johnny Rotten." Finn's signposting his already-established rock-based creed is an anchor he can use to ground his more expressive comments on faith on the tracks ahead.

This begins in earnest and quite deliberately with "My New Friend Jesus." It's flagrantly tongue-in-cheek ("it's hard to suck with Jesus in your band" or "people say we suck at sports, but they don’t understand; it’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands") but Finn has too much invested in his identity as a soul-bearing troubadour to be pulling a fast one. Although the sunny country-western vibe does nothing to lessen the we're-all-in-on-the-joke lyrics, he does himself in with the revelatory bridge: "Wish I was with Jesus when you loved me; I would have found a better me, that much I can guarantee."

Later on, he returns to the topic with much more intentionality on the rusty, Old West-style ballad, "Western Pier." After proclaiming, "Christ is watching me right now," in the opening stanza, he tightens his affirmation by more than a few notches at the track's end as though he's a weary plains drifter, explaining, "Jesus is a judge, and he's kind and he's just, and he forgives us for our avarice and lust." After spending the bulk of the number's 3:52 grounding the narrator's emotional conviction, such an apology for his faith cannot be considered as anything but sincere.

The most interesting stop on this journey is the first single, "Honolulu Blues," a cut not far removed from Hold Steady territory in musical execution, but further afield in lyrical import. From a man who "darkened our share the good news" to a chorus laden with the imagery of Christ's resurrection, it's an adventurous path for Finn, especially on a track which could otherwise be easily accessible to his well-cultivated Hold Steady audience. He asks his listeners to at least consider his convictions even if they don't agree with them, a relatively daring move in an era when many artists expect too little of their audience while others dictate exactly what they think the experience of their material should be. 

Fortunately, for those of you for looking for a little less explorations of faith from your favorite story-spinning rock frontman, Finn devotes larger portions of the compilation to less confrontational realms. "Jackson" could easily serve as the backstory to The Hold Steady's live favorite, "Sequestered in Memphis," telling the story of the narrator, Stephanie and Jackson and how they ended up holed-up in a hotel room after some bad things went down. Whether the precise storylines between the two songs line-up is irrelevant; it's Finn's ability to take the listener into a scene with him where things might turn out epically awful, but it would be a helluva trip to be part of. The same is largely true on the uptempo "Terrified Eyes," which takes the scene back to the Wagon Wheel from "When No One's Watching," and the complicated relationship dynamics of Shannon and Sean. Few but Finn could take an insider's view of a tenuous relationship and avoid it devolving to the stuff of Coldplay.

He wraps things up with a couple of the slower, more moody numbers that routinely fill-out the back ends of records. "Rented Room" is a bluesy, back room diversion, while the closer "Balcony" benefits from a bit more pep in its step and an alluring steel guitar part from Jackson, one of the album's more distinctive moments in melody.

Come for: "No Future"
Stay for: "Honolulu Blues"
You'll be surprised by: "Western Pier"

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