Monday, January 28, 2008

Liam Finn: I'll Be Lightning - Review

In the late 80's, smack dab between his MTV-friendly Split Enz and his more recent solo singer-songwriter career, Neil Finn commissioned famed luthier Danny Ferrington to build two guitars. Finn was seeking inspiration in writing and performance with his then-band, masters of crafty pop Crowded House. Closely tied to his family, both in his life and in his music, Finn asked Ferrington to inlay the ebony of the first guitar's fretboard with pearl symbols representing each member of his family. Perhaps in a fit of wishful thinking, Finn requested that the fifth fret, representing 7-year old son Liam, be adorned with a drum kit.

Nearly twenty years on, it appears Neil got his wishes, as Liam is playing the drums . . . and the bass, and the guitar, and the piano, and nearly every other instrument appearing on I'll Be Lightning, Liam's solo debut released this month on Yep Roc. Though the project is chock full of lyrical phrasing, melodies, and the voice, that voice, that all draw lines right back to Papa, I'll Be Lightning finds Liam skipping right out of his father's tall shadow.

Lightning is nothing earth-shattering. It's a pop record, and it doesn't attempt to be anything more. But it's a beautiful pop record, fat with double and triple-tracked vocals, keyboards, and infectious melodies that sneak from your iPod into your brain and live there for the afternoon.

The record starts in simplicity with "Better to Be," a bit of a throwaway song built around a loopy keyboard riff. From there, the complexity increases quickly through the strong three-song run "Second Chance," "Gather to the Chapel," and the closer to what feels like the album's first segment, "Lead Balloon," ending in a screaming bit of pop-punk.

Finn's vocals are a bit thin in places, especially where only single-tracked, as on the plodding rhythms of "Energy Spent," or in the silly "Music Moves My Feet." In fairness, the weakness in Finn's voice is due in part to his freshman lack of confidence in delivery, but also to the less-than-conscious comparisons the listener inevitably makes to the more muscular and pop-seasoned pipes of Finn's father.

By the album's close, Finn hits his stride. Reviewers trotting out Brian Wilson references may be a bit cliche, but the references are warranted in this case. More directly, the last half of Lightning references the Fab Four, not so much as mere influence as outright homage at times, especially on the title track, which ends in a beautiful chorus of Finn vocals.

Identifying the weaknesses in this solo release seems almost unfair, as this is a strong solo debut that is a worthy purchase, and not just for Finn completists. Rolling Stone was dead-on in identifying Liam Finn some months ago as one of its "Artists to Watch."

Finn Footnote: That second guitar? Neil had Ferrington build a miniature version of his own guitar to give to boy Liam. Neil immediately borrowed the mini-guitar and carried it into the studio, where it can be heard on "Four Seasons in One Day," "Weather With You," and "She Goes On," three standouts from Crowded House's 1991 pop-gem Woodface.

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