Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn keeps it intimate and personal, debuting newFNL-inspired album at Frank
Craig Finn, who played a taut hour-plus set at Frank last night, has had an uncommon career. After first rising to notoriety while fronting the adored-by-a-few, ignored-by-most Minneapolis art-punk band Lifter Puller, his Brooklyn hobby band The Hold Steady blew up following the release of its 2006 album Boys And Girls In America. For every aspiring indie rocker on the wrong side of thirty who never gave up on music, he’s an inspiration.
He’s also a person whose ambitions, just as they didn’t begin with the Hold Steady, don’t end there — which is what brought him to the Hot Dogs/Cold Beer headquarters on 4th St. on a Saturday night. His previously announced solo debut, Clear Hearts Full Eyes (and if the Friday Night Lights allusion isn’t enough to make Finn an honorary Austinite, the set featured plenty more to earn him the badge), is scheduled for a January release, followed by an extensive US tour behind it. To warm up for that run, Finn took his songs, many for the first time in front of an audience, to the tiny stage at Frank.
The new material sounds like rocking, country-tinged odes (the slide guitar was featured prominently) to loneliness and self-exploration.
Calling it “solo material” doesn’t quite capture the sound of what Finn was up to with the set — in fact, there were more people onstage at Frank (six, including Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson, who also opened the show, on backing vocals) than are currently in the Hold Steady (five). That means that the songs aren’t a bunch of stripped-down acoustic numbers. That probably wouldn’t have worked, given Finn’s nasal, spoken-word delivery of veritable mouthfuls of lyrics in every song, and it wasn’t what he went for. Instead, the new material sounds like rocking, country-tinged odes (the slide guitar was featured prominently) to loneliness and self-exploration.
Finn’s signature vocal style has been a hallmark of his music from Lifter Puller through to the Hold Steady, and his literary ambition as a lyricist is one of the things that helped a guy who doesn’t really sing all that much front a major rock band. (There’s a 773-page Wiki devoted to annotating the guy’s lyrics.)
With his bands, Finn’s songs tend to be stories of drug addicts, struggling losers, and the people who love them – intricate narratives that could legitimately be described as "Carver-esque" without much snickering — and while that voice was present in some of the songs he debuted at Frank, much of the material was more personal. In songs like set highlight “Rented Room” (which was released late last month as the b-side to the album’s first single), the “I” in the song is clearly Finn himself, and not, say, a drugged-out burnout exploiting his girlfriend’s ability to predict horseraces. He’s still a keen observer, but in the new songs, that eye turns inward. It’s a distinction that made the songs he played at Frank feel different from his work with the Hold Steady, despite a signature vocal delivery and similarly-full sound.
With his bands, Finn’s songs tend to be stories of drug addicts, struggling losers, and the people who love them – intricate narratives that could legitimately be described as "Carver-esque" without much snickering — and while that voice was present in some of the songs he debuted at Frank, much of the material was more personal.
Because while the Hold Steady draws comparisons to bar-rockers and Bruce Springsteen, Finn’s solo material goes in another direction. It’d be easy to keep the Springsteen analogy going and call this his Nebraska, but the material isn’t stripped down — it’s just different from what he’s done before. Finn is hardly the first indie rock frontman to cut a solo record that finds him dabbling in country music, but it doesn’t matter that this isn’t a massive sonic departure from the Hold Steady: it’s definitely a thematic one. The songs Finn played at Frank (twelve, in all — the entire album, plus another song, as well as an encore performance of the set-opener “No Future” for the cameras recording the set) are mostly straight-up break-up songs, the narrative of a guy who came down to Texas for the summer, rented a room in the house of the people who own Frank, and wrote a bunch of sad songs with slide guitars and some extra twang. During this first live run-through, it didn’t sound so much like Finn’s Nebraska as his Blood On The Tracks.
Which isn’t anything to complain about at all. The set at Frank was a taut hour of personal material, with a band that never seemed like they were playing live together for the first time. After finishing the set’s last song — Clear Hearts Full Eyes closer “There’s Not Much Left Of Us” — and before announcing the second run-through of “No Future,” Finn thanked the audience and explained that would be it for the night. They didn’t know any other songs.
Maybe fans who came hoping to hear a quick take on an old Hold Steady tune or two before the night ended left disappointed, but those who wanted to be the first to hear something new in a room small enough to make Finn’s new confessionals seem intimate got exactly what they bargained for.