Craig Finn's solo output has been reassuringly impressive, building on his work with The Hold Steady, he gives himself the freedom here to explore more intricate and intimate material without the band dynamic guiding the development of his lyrics. Album number three picks up exactly where 2015's Faith In The Future ended, these are lyrically dense songs that don't rely on hooks and choruses to make their point. Instead they're like snippets from an unwritten novel detailing the struggles of middle age in middle America. It's Finn's strength as a wordsmith that makes We All Want The Same Things such a joy to listen to. While the record takes a little longer to percolate through your brain than its predecessor, it's equally as compelling.
Finn mainly writes in the first person, enabling these songs to have an intimacy, no matter how dark the tales of drug deals and broken lives become. That's perhaps always been the key to his success, each protagonist feels as if they're speaking directly to you, detailing their lives in minute detail. It also allows Finn to play with time, as these aren't linear narratives. Opening track 'Jester & June' opens right in the middle of a stream of consciousness anecdote about a bathroom drug deal. As the story unfolds though, it's clear that the narrative is all in the past tense and that life has moved on quite dramatically from the glory days. It's a technique used many times in these ten songs, but by removing a reliance on a traditional story structure these vignettes always take interesting and unexpected turns.
Musically these compositions take their lead from Finns lyrics, for example 'Jester & June' echoes the structure entering the narrative midway through, a wailing saxophone suggests we're dropping in mid-flow. Pianos, brass, and assorted percussion, all propel these songs forward, but it's the guitar solos that do most of the heavy lifting preventing the lack of traditional structure from becoming overwhelming. 'Birds Trapped In The Airport' deploys a dreamy organ and Caithlin De Marrais' harmonies to take Finn as close to traditional pop as he's likely to get. It's the moment where you realise how different these songs may have sounded if they'd been put through the prism of The Hold Steady, personally I like what Finn's achieved here by handpicking contributions from fellow band-mate and guitarist Tad Kubler along with Stuart Bogie on horns, among others.
Continue reading: Craig Finn - We All Want The Same Things Album Review
I doubt that 2015 will be remembered for being dominated by one particular musical genre. It seems the culture of digital downloads has made it more difficult for a movement to coalesce in a marketplace brimming with choice.
I'd argue though that the last twelve months has seen the strongest showing from female artists across the board for many years. Many acts would easily have made my year-end list on a different day, and many of them cantered on a strong female voice. Solo artists like Joanna Newsom, Laura Marling, and Lana Del Rey all presented strong albums. Even Florence Welch's third album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, which didn't quite live up to her previous efforts in my opinion, featured some glorious moments. I debated for a long time whether to include Courtney Barnett's Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit in my ten best records list. Ultimately it sits just outside for me, although her unique delivery and kitchen sink drama approach is wonderfully endearing. That Adele's 25 closed the year on a strong note, just underlined the trend that had been building all year. It's not just solo artists though; the likes of: Best Coast, Girlpool, Bully, and Wolf Alice, all demonstrated that women were back in the spotlight.
Other bands made welcome returns, Blur in particular were my live highlight of the year, thanks to Graham Coxon's master class on stage. Their album The Magic Whip didn't quite make the cut for my list in the end, compared to most other years it would have. Interestingly it was also a year where side projects came to fruition for well-known artists. Dan Auerbach's The Arcs produced their first studio material, as did Matt Berninger's El Vy. Both albums had their moments, but didn't quite feel fully realised in their own right. Elsewhere the likes of Lucero, Jason Isbell, and Ben Folds produced albums that matched their finest work. My love of bands from Philadelphia also continued thanks to Beach Slang's debut The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us and Hop Along's third album Painted Shut. If there were disappointment's I had, it was those records that were simply good and not as great as you'd hoped. The Decemberists, Frank Turner, Wilco, and Death Cab For Cutie's albums all fell into that category for me. By no means bad, the material on those albums struggled to compete with their high watermarks of previous years. I was especially curious about Ryan Adams' ambitious reinterpretation of the entirety of Taylor Swift's 1989, the result didn't quite live up to the promise it had on the drawing board though. It may have introduced a different audience to some excellent songs, but Adams managed to strip some of the fun out of the arrangements in the process. By the time there were Father John Misty covers of Adams' recordings on the Internet, it felt like the Swift fan club didn't need any more famous members.
Then there were the records you felt you should love, but for whatever reason they just didn't connect on a personal level. Drake and Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman produced records that despite the hype I just didn't manage to fall in love with. Tilman's 'Bored In The USA' was astute social commentary with it's tongue firmly in its cheek, but it didn't hook me into the album as a whole. Perhaps the biggest record in this category for me is Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. It's technically brilliant, ambitious, has great rhymes, and straddles so many genres that it shouldn't be as cohesive as it is. The problem was, it left me cold. It almost felt as if Lamar wanted to prove he could produce something that ticked all the boxes he thought he should, rather than writing the record he wanted to. Perhaps with time I'll grow to love these albums, hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Continue reading: Jim Pusey's Top 10 Albums Of 2015
Craig Finn's second solo album, 'Faith In The Future' (released on Brooklyn-based indie label Partisan), is the best evidence yet that the 44-year-old could write the great American novel of the 21st Century if he set his mind to it. That's how compelling the vignettes and characters he presents are. They're elevated out of the mundane lives they inhabit by Finn's turn of phrase and keen eye for detail. Like Springsteen and Dylan before him, Finn uses his creations to highlight wider social themes without sounding like he's preaching from on high. With that in mind, this isn't a forgettable solo outing, rather Finn flexing his narrative muscles in a different direction.
Without the grandiose instrumentation required for a full band like The Hold Steady, Finn's compositions seem more intimate, but never pedestrian here. There's no rush to get to the big choruses and these ten songs are certainly less eclectic than his previous solo record, 2012's 'Clear Heart Full Eyes'. While many of these songs may feel like they have a more sombre undertone than The Hold Steady, there are still moments where organs and brass add a layer of joy to Finn's distinctive and melancholy guitars. Mix in the occasional backing singer for a chorus and you've got a sonically satisfying and not entirely predictable album.
But, really, with lyrics this good, there's little need for anything musically challenging to accompany them. Take penultimate track 'Christine' for example, where Finn hooks you with the opening lines: "She went to Memphis with some dentist, that she met on some weird website. She came back three days later, she couldn't speak for a week". If that doesn't make you want to hear the next three minutes of the song to find out what happened, then I'd be surprised. That lyric alone tells you there's sadness, mystery, heartbreak, and a touch of black humour in what's to come. That's certainly an achievement for the opening bars of any track. Unsurprisingly, many of these songs have a similar moment where a line grabs your attention and pulls you into the narrative. Perhaps the most disturbing is the aborted phone call from an ex-lover on 'Sarah, Calling From A Hotel'. The closure given in the rest of the conversation is abruptly disturbed by the chorus; "The last thing she said to me before she hung up the phone was "here he comes, oh god, I gotta go. Here he comes, he's got a gun"." It plays like a scene from a short film or a chapter from a novel, Finn's writing seems to use the structure of his songs to build tension and real empathy with his characters.
Continue reading: Craig Finn - Faith In The Future Album Review