A distinctively gruff troubadour's voice, a well-read poet's sensitivity, and an emotional honesty in conveying bluesy hard-won angst -- those are the disparate elements that combine in the soulful music of the American original known as Jeff Finlin.
On this, his third solo album, Finlin presents a collection of grizzled, rootsy musical tales that evoke timeless Americana -- the dusty feel of a Western desert expanse, the inescapable hot of a delta town in a Southern summer, cotton fields, prairies, everywhere and nowhere. These are the settings for the everyman/woman plain folk that populate the poignant tracks of Somewhere South of Wonder.
The sounds here are simple and direct, presenting an immediacy and intimacy akin to the sounds of a T. Bone Burnett or Gary Myrick. Finlin's voice is unique and rough, yet similar in tone at times to many others, from Bob Dylan to Tom Petty to Greg Brown to Steve Earle to Tom Waits.
Finlin has been in the music biz for over twenty years now, and has a well-traveled career that dates back to Boston's post-punk scene in the '80s. After a relatively brief career drumming for the Thieves, Finlin took his guitar and piano skills and turned solo with 1997's Highway Diaries, followed by 1999's Original Fin. On this third collection, he's teamed up with musician friend Pat Buchanan (The Idle Jets) on several tracks (and with Laron Pendergrass on others) to produce a sometimes stark, often beautiful soundscape.
The CD opens with the plaintive confession/lament of "I Am the King", with Finlin handling drums, guitar, piano, accordion, percussion and vocals (with help from Buchanan and bass player Dave Jacques). This haunting tale from the much-celebrated king charts a long circuit of progress: "Walked alone on a desert floor / Lost my vote and knelt and prayed / Killed the cop and lost the world / while the credits rolled and a river hymn played / Died alone up upon that hill / Rose again through the rusty clay / Sat dead still in your open arms till I found myself in another man's face".
The bittersweet "Sugar Blue" (featuring Will Kimbrough on slide guitar), examines a failed past relationship by "holding darkness up to the light" in order to find out what went wrong, aided by railroad gin and the lonely raven's song at night.
Not all is woeful for our man Finlin's characters. The singer of "Summertime" is drunk on love, feeling good and right and an integral part of the season, laying low with his desired one in their respective underwear.
"Good Time" may sound like an upbeat John Hiatt tune, yet it plants tongue firmly in cheek as it offers an acerbic view of narrow-minded, small-town American life: "We got souls somewhere south of wonder / Trailers flying across the prairie / Cars with doors of many colors / Conviction, yeah -- we're beating up the fairies / It ain't nothing but a good time".
We're back to the emptiness of love's hollow goodbyes with the soft strains of "Delta Down". Home is just a heartache in this hapless reminisce: "Just when I think I'm there / Smiles turn into despair / Thorns where there used to be a crown". There are some fine solos here on harmonica (by Pat Buchanan) and piano (Finlin).
The short but repetitious blues romp of "Which Way?" is a lighthearted toss of a song, examining rough and ready Southern love: "She got grits and gravy, clay and greens / Sweet potatoes and Vaseline / She got the monkey touch / So squeaky clean / I say come here baby, she says what do you mean".
My contention about what makes Jeff Finlin so special is the way he matches his insight into the depths of human feeling to a sweet melody. He achieves this well in the beautiful and poetic "Alchemy", wherein "a plain man beyond repair" lives an ordinary life, but for the dream of an embrace and to see the face of his love next to him: "We're just a movement and not to prove it / To face the love, to move on through it / A simple choice for you and me / Broken down in Alchemy".
Another song that quietly contemplates the small miracles and wisdom of everyday life's events is the dulcet "Miracle Along the Way". Here Moses parts the seas before his eyes in the bottom of his paper coffee cup "...and says everything there is to get / You've had inside you all along".
A man stuck at a bleak dead-end is the subject of the deceptively upbeat-sounding "Where Do We Go". The words reveal that he's standing on a bridge in the Mississippi night, asking to be shown the way, wondering "Where we gonna go from here?".
Jeff Finlin never seems at a loss for words. But while his lyrics stretch longer than most, there's no sacrificing quality for quantity -- each word evokes a crafty picture in telling the full tale. "Sugar Blue Too" is chock full of stories within stories as our loner man walks the dark streets, whispering love talk to his sugar blue: "In a tragedy so blue, so black / The hole it's big, it's dark, it's round / And you can't fill it up with what you lack / I've lived outside so long / I've got no clue for looking in / I've got the key right to the door / But all I know how to do is kick it in".
The closing title track is a bluesy exploration of contentment (yes, contentment) in a world Finlin's singer can call his own, heat countered by cool drinks in hand and a love that survives troubles: "Kiss me once again dear / our golden rings have turned to steel / good thing we chose the love hon / And found that smiles can grow from tears." It's a fitting summary piece to bookend all that's come before it.
While Finlin's vocals might remain an acquired taste, his skill for marrying smart-yet-simple, honest narrative to fresh, intimate melodies elevates him far above the average musical fray. Somewhere South of Wonder is an earthy mix of heartfelt blues from everyday folks coping with life and love, joy and despair, expressed through the raspy filter of Finlin's compelling voice.
Right now, Finlin has his largest following in the UK (where he tours regularly). Perhaps this latest release will win him the larger acclaim this veteran troubadour deserves. These haunting musical tales weave an aural tapestry that bears closer examination on lazy afternoons and in the wee hours of the night, where its powerful sounds best fill the lonely empty spaces of an oft-moody, quietly unpredictable universe.