Review : Craig Finn - Clear Heart Full Eyes
SputnikmusicIf Craig Finn's reflection in the beer bottles round The Hold Steady's table is one of stuttering animation and brief moments of clarity, removed from his band he appears considerably less cavalier, content to interject when the conversation fades or the protagonists of his stories pause to take another drag of their cigarettes. Not that his storytelling lacks any of its usual incision - every line feels just as lived-in as ever - but on Clear Heart Full Eyes he falls into his music slightly, allowing its more laid-back tone to do a little bit of the talking for him, and leaving more unsaid in general.
The songs situate themselves later in the evening, after all the explosions, when the thinking's done and the buzz is wearing off. Their guitars rumble and dip, considerably less urgent and punchy than those of his full-time band, and Finn sounds suitably contemplative; there is an ambience to this record which replaces the exuberant atmosphere he usually finds himself amongst, and his shouts follow the same dampened curve, though they never drop anywhere close to whispers.
The effects of this change of pace and tone are twofold; the characters Finn laments get more space in which to grow, away from the panicked chords of Hold Steady anthems, but they also find themselves with a shakier raison d'être - whether you can find somewhere for these songs to go depends on your own mental construction of these people and their scenery. It drifts, at points, but not without a deep chord to make you wonder, and though its transitions sometimes feel slightly misplaced, it's no form of posturing; Clear Heart Full Eyes is entirely at ease with itself, rarely forcing the issue beyond the gently affecting, but
affecting is definitely the right word. It goes down smooth....full text
MishkanycThe Hold Steady have settled into a very comfortable and surprisingly fruitful position as not only one of America’s best bar bands, but also one of its surprise crossover hits. Perhaps not in records sales, though they’re no slumps, but in range of clientele. The crowd at a Hold Steady show is a incongruous blend of indie rock heads who like the Kerouac lyricism and lament the loss of keyboardist Franz Nikolai, drifting and drunk Twin Cities natives who’ve been along for the ride since Lifter Puller, and hoodie wearing bros who like to slam beer cans to anthemic choruses.
Fitting then, how for his first solo venture, Craig Finn has openly aped the oft-repeated phrase from another hard to classify kink in America’s pop culture quilt, Friday Night Lights. It’s the southern football show that became an unlikely place of worship for pale and scrawny masses of TV nerds. Much like that show, Craig Finn also has that innate ability to tap into a lost “American-ness”, mostly focused on youth, that is hard to say no to. His streak does not end with Clear Hearts Full Eyes, and are in ways enhanced by his admittedly minimal experience with songwriting. Whereas as part of the Hold Steady Finn is handed a completed song to spin his yarns over, here he digs into his crates of folk and country records, cobbling together songs that may lack the punching choruses but bring their own charming energy.
Lyrically, the subjects are no surprise. Finn is a master of the high-lowbrow, imbuing his beersoaked stories of lost girls, ill-fated trips to southern cities, explosive youths, and biblical imagery with a glow of unforced profundity. The man tells a good tale. Even when flirting with kitsch as on “New Friend Jesus”, he still has the smarts to include some funny aside about how it’s “hard to play sports with holes in your hands.” Stripped of his sing-along songs, Finn is allowed to move forward in a way that 2009′s Heaven Is Whenever couldn’t. The melancholy is not always a triumphant one. There are musical misses here, like the saloon twinkle of “Terrified Eyes”, but for the most part Finn chooses his set dressing quite well. Whether this is just a one-time diversion or not, Finn reaffirms that, like the Dillon Panthers, he’s someone we want to root for and probably should....full text
BbcCraig Finn describes himself as the kind of writer who sits in the back seat of the car driven by his characters, taking notes. For the sake of his sanity and general health, this is doubtless a good thing. On Lord, I’m Discouraged, a song from The Hold Steady’s 2008 album Stay Positive, the Minnesota-born resident of Brooklyn profiles an unrequited love whose life is sliding into the despair of drug addiction. "The sutures and bruises are none of my business / She says that she’s sick but won’t get specific," he sings, later adding: "I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine / So I mostly just pray she don’t die."
To say that Finn is a lyricist of uncommon humanity, not to mention one possessed of a fine attention to detail, is to understate the case. On Clear Heart Full Eyes, he shrouds his tales of foolish people lost on long wanderings on the inexpensive side of the tracks with music that is less dense than that offered by The Hold Steady. That band has been described by American Psycho author and alt-punk expert Bret Easton Ellis as being the finest group in the United States; their sound is a tough one to better. Fans of the group will identify with Finn’s solo flight in no small part due to the distinctive treble-heavy voice and narrative style, but songs such as the sparse Apollo Bay – which sees the narrator drunk on similarly treble-heavy Victoria Bitter in Australia – and the gentle Not Much Left of Us offer something different from the author’s usual work.
But as fine as the music on offer here happens to be – and often it’s very fine indeed – it is Finn’s sense of humanity in lyrical form that really sets this album apart. "From the way you picked up the phone, I could tell you weren’t going to die / February is as long as it is wide," is the opening sentiment of No Future, and an early contender for couplet of the year. Elsewhere figures as diverse as Freddie Mercury and John Lydon are thrown into the mix, characters listen to Ozzy Osbourne and KISS in studio apartments, as well as a whole host of city-dwellers whose lives are led on the serrated edge that separates good people from bad. It is these people, and the fact that their creator has sufficient skill to humanise them and have the listener care about their fate, that makes Clear Heart Full Eyes a work of understated beauty....full text
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