|Personnel: Ricky Ray Jackson, Billy White (guitar); Katie Holmes (fiddle); Catherine Davis (piano, organ, keyboards); Jesse Ebaugh (organ, upright bass, bass guitar); Josh Block (drums, percussion); Hope Irish, Will Johnson (background vocals).
|Whether he's spinning tales of arson and murder over the angular, synth-kissed indie rock of Lifter Puller, or recounting the excesses and fatal flaws of his fictional Twin Cities denizen with the Hold Steady's swagger-filled bar rock behind him, Craig Finn has always had a way of blending in with whatever music he's accompanied by without losing his writerly voice. With its mellow, lonely sound, Finn's solo debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes, finds the songwriter looking for a change of sonic scenery that feels more like a vacation from his other work than a departure, with the singer maintaining his identity as a songwriter as he adapts to a more distinctly country sound. Over the course of its 11 tracks, the album unfolds like a series of vacation snapshots that show Finn being himself in a new locale. Unsurprisingly, the singer is able to deftly adapt to his new surroundings, with his narrative, story-filled lyrics taking on a newfound earnestness that reflects the plaintive strains of pedal steel that weaves in and out of these more restrained arrangements. This ability to meld with, rather than take over, the songs he's on is a testament to Finn's abilities not just as a lyricist and a singer, but as a raconteur. Finn's guileless, observational create a clean, engrossing narrative that allows listeners to escape into another world for a few minutes at a time. Though this kind of approach doesn't leave a whole lot up to interpretation, its directness gives you the opportunity to contemplate the "who," "where," when," and "why" of the songs rather than just the "what." Anyone expecting the bar rock bravado of the Hold Steady is probably going to be disappointed by Clear Heart Full Eyes' subdued vibe, but anyone looking for more of Craig Finn's sprawling tales will feel right at home. ~ Gregory Heaney