Best known as the frontman for the raucous yet literate bar band The Hold Steady, Minneapolis native Craig Finn has long been one of music’s truly unusual characters.
A wry and an ambitious lyricist with a gimlet eye for the lives of the depraved and downtrodden, his bands have often sounded like Thin Lizzy driving their tour bus directly through a Donald Barthelme reading. Finn’s inarguable gift for words has frequently made strange bedfellows with an apparent preference for early 70s riff rock. His reedy, straining voice on any given track can either add pathos through its limitations, or distract from the excellence of his material. Regardless, Finn is never less than interesting, and his solo debut, “Clear Heart, Full Eyes,” is no exception.
Opening track “Apollo Bay” quickly establishes that Finn is after something distinctive from The Hold Steady. With its square, deliberate tempo and steel guitar touches, the song could pass for a virtual rewrite of Neil Young’s downer classic “On The Beach”. Meanwhile, “Honolulu Blues”, sounds like a Northern gent’s earnest take on Memphis soul. While it never quite swings like a Stax Records classic, it’s fun to hear Finn work this idiom with a typically noirish touch.
On “New Friend Jesus” Finn explores his long-standing, ambivalent preoccupation with his Catholic upbringing, juxtaposing devout longing with something resembling utter blasphemy: “People say we suck at sports/but they don’t understand/it’s hard to catch with holes in your hands”.
“Clear Heart, Full Eyes,” resoundingly underscores Finn’s role as a major American songwriter. Like Paul Westerberg and Mark Eitzel, Finn is a persuasive, dexterous chronicler of the beautiful losers that get lucky sometimes. Sometimes, but never often enough.
“Apollo Bay,” “No Future”