Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Album Review: Liam Finn - I'll Be Lightning

Liam Finn: I'll Be Lightning
[Yep Roc 2008]


As a one-man-band in the studio, Liam Finn certainly doesn’t make things easy for himself. His dream pop debut album I’ll Be Lightning has Finn producing the work and playing most of the instruments himself, a task not eased by his esteem for packing diverse instrumentation into his sleekly polished songs. Nevertheless, Finn’s hard work is manifested in mostly airy pop numbers that never get too down lyrically or in mood.

Liam Finn’s accessible yet confident style as shown on I’ll Be Lightning to be a unique direction that he is charting for himself out of the shadows of famous musician relatives. Most notably his father Neil Finn is a music icon in their native New Zealand, as frontman of pop rock group Crowded House and new wave band Split Enz in ‘80s, ‘90s, and recent reunions of both bands in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Liam enlisted the help of his father on the album, recording it at Neil’s recording studio in Auckland. Furthermore, Liam’s uncle Tim has played alongside his father in both bands and has played alongside Neil as the Finn Brothers since the mid ‘90s. Refreshingly, as the latest product of this musical family, Liam borrows the fondness for Beatles-like pop melodies but largely finds his own musical bearings quite separately from his father’s and uncle’s, and his work stands on its own regardless of his last name.

Although the songs on I’ll Be Lightning sport highly accessible pop hooks and easily melodic song structures, the “experimental” moniker occasionally slapped on his work comes from his use of dense, intricate, and production-polished instrumentation and layering effects. For the high production value and seemingly exhausting task for Finn, the album maintains a light, dreamy air throughout. The songs maintain a guitar-centric quality, be it acoustic or electric, while a humble use of drums guides the action when Liam’s “alternative” sounds do not.

With each sleek and slanted pop song, it’s more and more difficult to imagine Finn not fully enjoying himself in the production room. The album’s opener “Better to Be,” with it’s easygoing vocals and melody-hugging chorus, include light backup vocal layers, a fat bass line, and light electronic beeps and looped whispers of sound. The follow-up “Second Chance” begins with what sounds like some non-musical mechanical apparatus that, surprisingly enough, serves as a colorful beat for the first third of the song. Finn further explores supplementary studio sounds, including electronic flourishes on the warm and lyrically memorable “Fire in Your Belly,” a chugging lo-fi drum beat on “Energy Spent,” and the childlike, layered chorus on “I’ll Be Lightning.” On all these songs and others, the unique extra instrumentation adds interesting accents to the compositions while never overwhelming them.

However, as enjoyable as the songs are, repetition sinks in as catchy tunes are separated by rather unmemorable ones. There really isn’t a flop among the tracks, as all of them are quite agreeable and tuneful, but due to firm song structures and a production polish that smooths out the entire record sonically, some songs certainly stand out more than others on their melodic merits. While the instrument-rich production doesn’t interfere with the easy pop melodies, it also doesn’t work to diversify the overall sound or tone of the record, particularly in the album’s second half, which is largely less interesting and memorable than the first.

Nevertheless, I’ll Be Lightning is a thoroughly satisfying album that establishes Liam Finn’s personal style and fun knack for instrument rich pop songs. Should Finn advance his songwriting to deeper depths, and turn more of his focus from sound density to melodic consistency, more tracks would stand out as warm, immediately rewarding indie pop hits. Given the confidence and technical skill shown on I’ll Be Lightning, Liam Finn clearly has the resources to improve upon this already enjoyable and impressive debut.

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