(Vagrant Records) This week sees the release of Craig Finn's first solo venture – the optimistically titled Clear Heart Full Eyes. Stepping away from the sometimes excitable group dynamic of The Hold Steady, this latest outing is a calmer, more intimate foray into focused storytelling. Fans familiar with Finn's previous work will be pleased, if not entirely surprised, at the most recent turn of events and subject matter.
Whilst on a four-month break from The Hold Steady, Finn recorded these tunes in the scorching Texas July of 2011. This is a collection that has the paradoxical sense of space and claustrophobia that comes when oppressed by environmental heat. Doors and windows are open, the desire to escape permeates everything, but the ability to move with any kind of real urgency is somewhat harder to achieve. Almost every track is hampered by the weight of desire, the longing to shift a gear and escape. There is optimism; this is an ultimately optimistic, almost celebratory collection, but the light is aspired to, not immediately available. The feeling is one of there being light at the edge of everything, where lines between ambtion and reality meet. “Things would be great, if we could just make things great” is the kind of situation many of the album's population would sing.
Regular folk-rock/Americana instrumentation is the bread and butter here. Producer Mike McCarthy treats sounds like a good chef, and he strips everything down to the bare essentials. Guitars slide all shiny over clicked snares and crunched strumming. At some points, this approach offers a kind of sketchy effect, as if things aren't fully cooked, but in reality, this parred-down approach exposes a deeper flavor -- a more explicit truth with regard to lyrical content. This is an album of honest, everyday folk with no illusions, only aspirations. The lack of artifice has the heroine of “Rented Room” not wearing stockings but remembered in the light of a naked bulb: “She used to take off her tights / turn out the lights / get into bed / fit me just right...” There's a quasi-series truth about the universe that no one can look sexy whilst removing tights. Finn seems aware of this fact, yet here he illustrates the awkward intimacies -- those moments that carry more substance than the imagined erotica of other people's lives. “I know I should be getting over you / but some things are really hard to do / when you're living in a rented room.” What appears as a throw-away bunch of easily rhyming lines describe a shrewd piece of portraiture. The self-effacing narrator is aware of the magical ghosts from his past and the transient nature of temporary residences, fleeting relationships, and life itself.
Where other artists within genre sometimes display a residual air of smugness -- a kind of inverted snobbery – for playing their part in preserving 'real music,' Craig Finn has no such airs and graces. These songs are lived and worn-in; household items are elevated for scrutiny, not handled as precious museum pieces, and for that, they become more magical, more ironically precious, and fuller in personality.
Geographic locations span the globe, either from real or imagined travels. Opening track “Apollo Bay” documents a headache borne of restlessness and nervy smalltalk, only treatable by an escape to the Australian coast. Craig Finn, it seems, is all too aware of how the dream of escape is sometimes as good as escape itself. “Honolulu Blues” offers a playful kind of grime and continues the kind of scrambling thread of thrown-out archetypes and name-checked characters that Dylan used to ramble through. Associations to far-off places conjure memories with “The souvenirs to prove that we were there” (artifacts of lives are always cheaper than they should be, when weighed against the emotion of the places we visit, but they're so damned necessary, sometimes). This may not be a radio song in the strictest of senses, but it is certainly juke-box fodder; friend to the boozy, the bluesy, and those inclined to sing.
It's the intimate moments within the collection that cement Finn's progress artistically; this isn't just a simple solo venture of an artist outside his usual company. This is a genuine dispatch from a newly honed vision. The subtle twists of perspective that supply an alternate view of the truth are genuinely magical and surprising. “Not Much Left of Us” closing the album gives the best description of the new definition. Finn's voice is more vulnerable yet more certain. His lyrics confessl without being washed away with unbridled emotion, and instrumentation sounds like a warm bath for the bruised heart. If fellow listeners don't get where Finn is heading with this album, point them here to underline intention.
Standout Tracks: “Not Much Left of Us,” “Apollo Bay,” “Rented Room”
For Fans Of: Ryan Adams, Lambchop, The Hold Steady