Craig Finn: A Legacy Of Rentals [Album Review]

Craig Finn
A Legacy Of Rentals
Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers [2022]

By now, after eight albums with The Hold Steady and four solo studio albums, we’ve figured out that Craig Finn is as much of a storyteller as he is a songwriter. Finn has a penchant for dark narratives about folk trapped in the difficult outcomes of bad choices. Not unlike the characters in short stories by the likes of Raymond Carter, you find party people taking things too far, folk in dead-end jobs risking it all on the chance for a better lease on life, and lonely people looking for love in all the wrong places. Given the cinematic quality in Finn’s stories, it feels utterly appropriate that he’s produced a video trailer for his fifth album, A Legacy of Rentals, full of black and white shots of aimless waves in the ocean and passing trains, and the bleak colors of a mid-western landscape. Finn describes his current batch of new songs this way: “Eventually it all comes down to memory, how we remember friends that are gone, places that have changed, major events that are part of our past. These songs are legends, memorials, incantations, affirmations, and prayers.”

In the hands of The Hold Steady, Finn has to chant/shout/sing in a way that competes against the guitar crunch of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge, the kick ass rhythm section of Bobby Drake on drums and Galen Polivka, and since 2016 the layers of keyboards by Franz Nicolay. The big rock anthems the produce often get compared to Bruce Springsteen & the E Streeters, but there’s also a bit of The Replacements punk energy and Thin Lizzy fire in those guitars. Working with producer Josh Kaufman, who’s also been behind the boards on the last few Hold Steady releases, Finn’s solo albums step away from the full band intensity for a more intimate, adult contemporary pop sound, more relaxed tempos with layers of keyboards and horns as embellishments. Here on A Legacy of Rentals, the volume is turned down and Finn’s voice and lyrics are front and center, the horn section is replaced largely with delicate string orchestrations.

Finn opens the record with “Messing with the Settings,” where he talks as he tells the story, full of obscure details that build to express the nature of a relationship with an older woman from his past until he slyly suggests the reason for his memory matters at the moment. He describes, “it’s my first trip back after 8 years in Denver, I drove in from the west/the city was different now, all those luxury lofts that they built in the old factories/reminded me of her faith in the industry/Rachel did her best with the deal she’d been dealt, and that’s what I’ve got for her elegy.” And just like that, we learn that the narrator isn’t telling his own story but recalling the life of a woman who’s now died. Thus, the repeated sung refrain, “Sometimes I feel like I’m riding a train I’m not on.”

And so it goes. While there’s no direct reference to the pandemic that spawned these different narratives with memory as one of the ties that bind them together, but he suggests as much in “The Year We Fell Behind,” where a couple is coming apart over their economic missteps. In “Never Any Horses,” Finn explores how two people can look back on a common experience and come away with very different recollections: “the history’s re-written when the memories get meddled with,” in the one song where there’s a bit of some fun guitar noise to compliment the punchier drum-beats. The album’s most up-tempo pop/rocker, “Birthdays,” features a sweet tenor sax solo by Stuart Bogie, as Finn reflects on the way a person’s genetic code is “passed down through the family/it’s nice to know there’s someone in this world who’s always known me.”

“The Amarillo Kid” looks at a young man’s decline into a life of crime set to a solid drum beat, who manages to escape out west away from the mob with some of their product. Meanwhile, in “Curtis & Shepard” the former tracks down the latter to make up for past wrongs. “Due to Depart” finds a guy remembering his family ties as he’s preparing to abandon his wife and daughter, with an organ swelling for accents, while “Jessamine” recalls a brief time with a goth girl who has now passed on far too young. The final two tracks, find Finn returning to his talking mode, singing only the refrain backed by Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins, while “A Break From the Barrage” tells the story of a woman who skips work after a one night stand only to drive out to a mall, drinks a pint of vodka and goes to the movies, only to return to the same tavern where things started the night before. “This is What It Looks Like” follows a group of young people who leave damage in their wake because as an expression of “what it looks like when we’re joyful/sometimes when we celebrate it looks like we’re pulling things apart.”

While there a several references to fish tanks as well as taverns, but it’s not clear if any of these stories are connected, or just random imaginary tales from the mind of Craig Finn, many of them rooted in sad, painful events captured in graphic detail. When George Carlin’s comedy turned particularly dark late in his life, he said “scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist,” so maybe that’s what motivates Finn to go down these dark narrative routes. Maybe he’s a hopeful sentimentalist coming to terms with what passes as normal life for so many folk in this world, or maybe it’s his “hail Mary” for someone who’s thinking “there but for the grace of God go I.” There’s no way to know for sure, but for those who’ve been on Finn’s frequency for a while, they’re likely to appreciate some of these new characters and fresh faces looking for a way out of a life that’s not all it could be.

“Birthdays” / “Messing With The Settings” / “Never Any Horses”

The Mountain Goats / Joe Henry / Paul Westerberg

I Need A New War (2019) / We All Want The Same Things (2017)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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