Label: Yep Roc Records
New Zealander Liam Finn has every advantage towards being a superior songwriter. Son of Crowded House frontman Neil Finn – the man to whom we are indebted for such 1980s roller rink classics as “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong” – the younger Finn has undoubtedly benefited from both nature and nurture. Proof positive was his debut, I’ll Be Lightning, released globally in early 2008 after getting a six-month head start in his homeland. The album was favorably reviewed by indie’s critical illuminati, his wafting melodies invoking comparisons to the forever-pedestaled Elliott Smith. A year later saw the Champagne in Seashells EP, a duet project he recorded with Eliza Jane Barnes, daughter of Aussie solo sensation Jimmy Barnes. And now we have Finn’s second full-length entitled FOMO, an acronym for “fear of missing out,” which is a curious sentiment considering his celebrity pedigree and familial intermingling. If this fear has anything to do with not being measured as his own man, FOMO can be counted as a definitive statement that while lineage is bequeathed, evolution is personal.
It’s the finesse of a fundamental that qualifies this record as a stand-out release. It’s no longer a foregone conclusion that all songs are built upon a voice and a melody; in this age of glitches and loops and presets and samples, the art of linear melody-writing (think: “Love can make you weep/ Can make you run for cover…“) is not as often an expectation as it is a niche descriptor. Finn’s talent in this regard is abundant: he has a voice – honest and clean, with a timbre that plugs easily into some auditory pleasure center – as well as an ear for melody – the compositions of FOMO, diverse and distinctive, are a set of pop songs with a flair for the dramatic.
“Neurotic World” is a fetching opener, Finn’s voice at center stage; open and familiar, with a hint of breath and subtle traces of accent. “I knew I couldn’t have you/ Right from the very start/ And that’s why you see right through me/ The boy who ate your heart,” sings Finn, this “modern neurotic world” sounding more like a benign dream than a bad romance as fluffy major chord inversions blossom up the piano’s keyboard. “Roll of the Eye” is lyrically a familiarity-breeds-contempt song about parochialism of the place that you’re from: “Crushed with the roll of the eye/ Your dreams die slow/ In the arms of your comfort zone.” Moving along happily in 6/8 time, the cynicism finally catches up to him by the chorus, a roiling, clanging tumult concluded with a dynamically strong but emotionally defeated wail. The last minute of the track extends the pitching of this fit with strands of overdubbed wordless harmonies; the transition from swaying waltz to frothing tantrum jars itself apart and mends itself back together in just the right way.
Finn’s range also is to be admired on FOMO. This is a vocalist who reaches up to his boyish upper limits with practiced confidence; as a listener, it brings that dramatic tension of predicting where the melody’s going, squinting internally as he aspires to those pitches and relaxing in relief when he nails it. Well-rounded too is his stylistic approach; the genres he represents are diverse, from the new wave, pseudo-Oriental feel of the stealthily sensual “Real Late” to the thrasher sensibility of “The Struggle” (a song inspired by a dream Finn had about selling his soul and, as a by-product, having to have sex with Julian Assange on his birthday) (!).
But perhaps the most arresting aspect of FOMO is the genre-fluidity of singular songs. Like “Roll of the Eye,” the ends of most tracks barely resemble the beginnings. Only rarely does this scripting devolve into theatrics, though the sudden lacerations he unleashes either musically or lyrically are not incidental. They juxtapose with purpose. “Little Words” pretends to be a demure acoustic number, softly plucked and pleasant enough if only you don’t listen to the words (“You’re pretty much dead to me“), until it unravels into a confusion of muted rolling toms, flooding harmonies, distressed caterwauling and on-key, sub-strata synth interference. Single and album favorite “Cold Feet” also surprises; a ’60s under-the-stars cheek-to-shoulder ballad is interrupted midway with an onslaught of galactic effects and then the velvet curtains fall, revealing a marching band’s wealth of gleeful instrumentation – sliding trombones and a host of other horns, ride cymbals and pitchy synths that sound something like electric bagpipes. If Finn was trying to capture the mania of newfound love, this giddy symphony might just do it.
FOMO has nothing to do with missing out but has everything to say about diving in. Predisposed to great talent and even greater expectations, Liam Finn started out from a very high place. Creative, precocious, melodic: hey now, Neil, I never did dream it’s over. With Liam around, I don’t have to.
by Stacey Pavlick