Craig Finn At City Winery, Tuesday, April 4th, 2017, reviewed
There was two months between the release of Craig Finn’s prior album Faith In The Future, and his current album We All Want the Same Thing but one works and the other doesn’t and the reason is Craig, with that sing-speak Lou Reed-y delivery and samey different songs about losers and shakers Faith in New York and St. Paul’s, is only as good as his best songs and his best songs weren’t as great as he claimed they were on Faith and are better than they appear to be on Same Thing. At City Winery on Tuesday evening. Finn performed a low key, sold out, album release party that only veered once from the two albums and one EP (“Nassau Coliseum” from pre-Hold Steady vintage). His “We All Want Different Things” band, featuring the producer of both albums Josh Kaufman, are fine and tightly wound though quiet and intense, he has a sax and a trumpet and even they are shading musical coloration, it is all fine though the audience is as subdued though still taken in, as the music.
Opening act, folkie Anthony D’Amato, you may know from his 2014 The Shipwreck From The Shore, a coupla of which he performed, as well as a handful of songs from his current release Cold Snap. The full bearded, rustic hillbilly plus guitar and harp guy, is an indie fella with buddies at Saddle Creek and the Hold Steady. He sings and plays much more winningly than you’d expect, and he can form a hook on the sly even in a litany song. I wish his lyrics were a little better.
Finn’s lyrics are always winning though as a non fan, I don’t consider them his saving grace. As a solo performer he has written one of my favorite songs of the decade, “Honolulu Blues,” to go along with plenty of songs that are anything but, and as an agnostic I admire how he integrates Christ and yet not Gospel into the songs. The name that had been coming to me, for years, has been Chekhov but maybe the Tolstoy of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” comes a little closer if you chose to change mediums. At City Winery he performed his terrific new and less terrific new songs off the new album, and also very respected though disappointment songs “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son” and “Newmeyer Roof”from the one before. Though he did save one song for me, “Trapper Avenue” off Faith, while passing on one of my faves from the same album “I Was Doing Fine (Then a Few People Died)”.
Somewhere between Craig’s deadpan and his deliverance, his explanation of his songs, and his sincerity, I wasn’t convinced till around the halfway mark when he began to really put it together. “Eventually I Made it to Sioux City” (off the EP only available if you pledged money to help finance the album) should have been on the album and “It Hits When It Hits” emerges as a borderline masterpiece with a crazy lovely coda and, well, “Rescue Me” has the best everything on the album, a superb story with a lyric that is so precise it could be Nabokovian, and a line that is prose poetry of the first order: “Looking off the balcony, well, that seems pretty pure to me.” That line is Nabokov: it distills worlds of emotion. This next verse is Chekhov, it moves the story at great speed and yet simultaneously lingers:
I know Jamie from the grocery store
Up on Garden Boulevard
She started out as a cashier
Now she’s in the back
She does scheduling and bookkeeping
She finishes her shift
Gets the bus and meets me back here
It is also Finn-ian in how it places the woman in a very precise location and simultaneously in a very precise social strata: she is lower middle class and it is unmovable from there, it is social scientry as is Finn as a whole. In “Balcony,” a couple of albums ago, Finn places the sexual betrayal very hipster LES (though, come to think of it, probably Brooklyn), from the bodega looking up , we know where we are in the world as the story unfolds. Yes, the lyric is always strong: the centerpiece of Same Thing, “God In Chicago” is a stupendous lyric that had Popdose’ Ken Shane claiming it as the best song on the album, but it isn’t, the verses aren’t there as music (the bridge saves it). Finn closed his show with the song and while we appreciate the stretch, it trifles compared to one of the best songs of faith I’ve ever heard, “Honolulu Blues” and also, with the Hold Steady, one of the greatest songs ever written about Christian morals, 2010’s “Our Whole Lives”.
This isn’t only a problem with his solo stuff, but with Hold Steady’s last albums as well. I don’t expect “Massive Nights” every time out, I expect the attempt at a song that is bigger than itself and at City Winery, Finn wasn’t bigger than himself. That expansive, arms flaying, finger pointing, excited beyond relief performing Finn had all but gone. During instrumental breaks he hung all the way back and listened to his band with us. Fair enough except this is meant to entice us in and if it isn’t going to do that, it is meant to tell us something the record didn’t and it does neither. The only thing I really got, that I kinda missed, was how of a piece the two albums are.
The problem is that the difference between great and not great Finn is huge, when it doesn’t happen it is a drag and how and when it does happen he appears to be one of the great writers of his generation and there is somuch difference between them. The new album is solid, the set was solid.