CD Review of I’ll Be Lightning by Liam Finn
Recommended if you like
Elliott Smith, Beck, Neil Finn
Label
Yep Roc
Liam Finn: I’ll Be Lightning

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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F
irst things first: Yes, Liam Finn’s dad is Neil Finn, the longtime critics’ favorite who has acted, on and off, as the creative engine driving Crowded House since the mid ‘80s. And yes, Liam served his apprenticeship under his dad’s wing, most recently as a touring member of the reconstituted House. But don’t go into the younger Finn’s solo debut expecting dreamy, immaculately polished pop along the lines of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” or “Don’t Stop Now” – I’ll Be Lightning is a journey full of sudden left turns through crowded, thorny thickets of sound. In the Finn family catalog, it’s less of a cousin to Woodface than a less-accessible version of Neil’s solo debut, 1998’s Try Whistling This, an album that wasn’t exactly a bright ball of pop itself.

The Whistling comparison isn’t terribly apt, but there really aren’t any to be made – like his dad, Liam is less an extension of his influences than their strangely complicated byproduct. You can catch unmistakable whiffs of Lightning’s ingredients burbling through the mix, sometimes quite strongly – as on the sweetly Lennonesque title track – but more often than not, he’s content to walk to the beat of his own drummer. (Quite literally, as it turns out; aside from being lightning, Finn is also essentially his own band for the duration of these 14 tracks, accompanied by guests on only a handful of occasions.)

Absent the inevitable unfair expectations, I’ll Be Lightning is an auspicious, pleasantly low-key solo debut. It’s tempting to speculate that the record won’t make a lick of sense to curious Crowded House fans, but then again, these are people who happily bought albums with tracks such as “Pineapple Head,” so they might provide the perfect audience for its fuzzed-out insularity. (Its appeal to fans of Finn’s on-hiatus band, Betchadupa, is more certain.)

Finn’s already drawn a fair number of Elliott Smith comparisons with this album, and it’s easy to hear why – but where Smith’s recordings tended to have a palpable (if not overwhelming) melancholy vibe, Finn’s are just sort of sometimes vaguely sad; he has a tendency to bury his songs under layers of Scotch tape and wool. This is, in the end, Lightning’s chief weakness: Whether by necessity or design, Finn favors vibe over clarity, and the result – here, anyway – is an altogether slippery listening experience, one that provokes more questions than it answers.

That’s the Finn family way, of course, but here, it feels unfinished – which is completely appropriate, given that it represents the virgin solo voyage of a 23-year-old songwriter. Approached with open ears, I’ll Be Lightning may not be an unqualified success, but it’s rarely less than beguiling. If it ultimately hints at more than it actually delivers…well, that’s what second, third, and fourth albums are for. So much the better.

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