Solo moves from leaders of great bands tend to disappoint. Thankfully, this solo debut from Craig Finn, the distinctive voice of Brooklyn rockers the Hold Steady, was intended as more a side trip than a departure.
Musically, Clear Heart Full Eyes eschews the Hold Steady's raucous bar-band sound for a quieter, rootsier (it was recorded in Austin, with local musicians), more soundscape-y style that acts as a foundation for Finn's lyrics-and-vocals-first approach rather than competing with him.
Conceptually, it's not a total departure. These are compassionate stories rooted in seedy settings, with plenty of Finn's trademark Religion ("New Friend Jesus"; the opening "Apollo Bay"' and its vision of "all 12 apostles ... seen from the shore") and Rock (Freddie Mercury and Johnny Rotten approvingly name-checked on "No Future"). But the viewpoint here is not the Hold Steady's grown-up punk-rocker or the hard-boiled clubgoer of Finn's pre-Hold Steady band Lifter Puller. Instead, there's an aging, hard-bitten, observational tone and settings that feel almost like Finn's been soaking up such rewarding marginalia as Midwest bar-band bards Wussy or short-lived downbeat detective show Terriers.
Without Hold Steady sidekick Tad Kubler's grab-bag of riffs, this album is only as good as Finn's songs — with "Terrified Eyes" (a couple crushed by sickness and hospital bills), "When No One's Watching (a singles-bar stalker in pursuit of lonely women), and "Honolulu Blues" (a word-drunk ramble) among the highlights. But it's probably appropriate that these stories are lacking the old-time-rock-and-roll deliverance proffered by Finn's main gig.