James McMurtry – Complicated Game


James McMurtry is a true craftsman of a story song and writes with the attention to detail and precision of a master short story author. Call it a vibe, style or sound, McMurtry has his own and you know it as soon as you hear it. His sound is like Mellencamp’s but worn down and run ragged from years of hard life. On Complicated Game the music is steady but understated and works to serve the lyrics and illustrate the world within the songs.

The blue collar hardships appear almost immediately on the lead-off song, “Copper Canteen.” The story is one that’s been told before, growing up before you know it, with a hard life while others around you succeed. But it’s McMurtry’s details that make the song come to life. There’s washing blood off the tailgate and wanting to kill one more deer before the season ends. But there’s also big details like big box stores out by the highway and the misery they bring. The melody and guitar sounds match the road-weary tales and the pace of McMurtry’s voice is as steady and unrelenting as life itself.

Some of the most interesting moments on Complicated Game are when McMurtry shifts away from his traditional sound. “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” isn’t a giant departure but its boot-stomping banjo and exaggerated back beat are a welcomed addition. Later, “Forgotten Coast” almost swings like a Bob Wills song without losing the McMurtry feel.

Complicated Game is less overtly political than his most recent releases. Possibly that’s because the political climate and leadership has changed, perhaps it’s just the direction he chose to go. But these twelve songs tell tales of society and the affect it has on the individual in much the same way Chris Knight works. Autopsy IV, of Nine Bullets fame, says the album is great for people who really miss the early Lucero albums. Craig Finn, of Hold Steady fame, writes in The Talk Box that “The music is always elegant here. McMurtry is consistently honest and the songs’ characters are dignified and nuanced. He never writes down to these people or judges their situations. That’s why Complicated Game is another fantastic collection of songs by one of America’s best songwriters.” I’ll just say it’s Essential Listening.

Official Site, On Facebook, Buy Complicated Game


It’s hard to suck with Jesus in your band.” ~ Craig Finn, “New Friend Jesus”

My ritual reaction to Hold Steady albums: I anticipate unmitigated fun; the record is actually released; I’m frustrated that it’s cheesy and too many lines are recycled Springsteen; I rant that if I wanted to hear Springsteen, I’d listen to Springsteen; I listen more and enjoy what’s there; I hate myself for being a snob; I go back to listening to Lucero.

In the lead-up to Craig Finn, captain of the Hold Steady’s, debut solo album, I let myself get equally excited. It represents a chance for him to say something to an audience with a different Bro Quotient (BQ), to express different influences, to express them more subtly, and to show us more of himself or his stories–which is what I think is best about Hold Steady. My great hope was that he would just use less words.

But lo! and behold, the first song of Clear Heart Full Eyes, Apollo Bay,” is a take-off of Neil Young’s “On the Beach.” I went through the ritual again and tried to appreciate the song before it was over. The rip-off mattered less when the next six songs proved full of pure Finn-ian beatitude. “When No One’s Watching” is a dastardly detective story, “New Friend Jesus” a hilarious side of Finn’s religious theme, “Terrified Eyes” is plain terrifying.

After listening to the whole album, I suppose the Neil Young summoning makes sense. Craig Finn and his nasally speak-singing have never had to stand on their own this much, without the backlit cacophony of his band. So, he calls on Neil Young  for a template. Neil Young, discouraged from singing in Buffalo Springfield because he “sang like a girl,” but went on to make slower, tenser, and louder albums than any other voice would’ve dared.

Craig Finn didn’t use less words. Springsteen reigned himself in after the first two albums, but Finn is fixed in the volume of Greetings and E-Street Shuffle. Even so, Clear Heart Full Eyes holds full doses of catharsis, beauty, resignation, and skewered comprehension–just as any Hold Steady album does. The keyboard trades for pedal steel, the drum sticks for paint brushes, but they’re all still Craig Finn’s songs. He can only write them one way, but it’s an effective way. He’ll always make me roll my eyes, but he’ll always convince me in the end. The song “Balcony” convinces me, and marks the album’s ascension.

Craig Finn – Balcony
Craig Finn – Terrified Eyes
Craig Finn – When No One’s Watching

Craig Finn’s Official Site, Craig Finn on Facebook, Craig Finn on Spotify, Buy CHFE on iTunes. On Amazon. Buy it on vinyl or CD from Vagrant Records. Craig Finn’s tumblr on the making of this album.