In an age of laptops, cell phones and global positioning systems, some who seek balance -- a naturalist yang to the futurist yin -- find it in organic foods, Buddhist meditation or rootsy folk music. How else to explain the exploding resurgence of acoustic genres, whether it's the boomers with their carefully packaged alterna-folk or the young hipsters with their new weird back-porch America and their folktronica?
Pittsburgh has its share of earthy pretenders -- those who worship at the shrine of Ani, or dip their folk chocolate in world-beat butter and hippie jam. Yet one singer-songwriter who clearly stands above the pack in terms of originality and sincerity is Kevin Finn, a versatile performer who is as powerful alone as with his full atmospheric alt-country outfit, Last Night on Earth.
Following up his Insects & Catacombs EP, which came out last year, Surface Tracks is a collection of odds and ends: a couple tracks recorded with his previous band, The Lads, solo acoustic on-air appearances from WYEP and WRCT, and various home-produced tapes. Despite the seeming disparity of sources, the program coheres into a whole because of his evocative lyrics and resonant, if somewhat high-pitched, mournful sing-song.
While "Bonesong" brings out a hypnotic tendency to strum in a dronelike manner on two chords, and "Green Frog Skin World" paints a picture of an old hilltop mansion creaking in the ghostly winds, Finn's overall effect is still more hopeful and passionate than dark and gloomy. With its rhythm section and gentle harmonica, "Beezus" works as a mellow, radio-friendly song for driving a pickup down a rural highway, while the lush, lap-steel-inflected twang of the closer "Wild Earth" places Finn in Uncle Tupelo country.
Anyone who knows Finn is aware that he leans more toward the indie side of the fence -- more likely to feel kinship with Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart or Six Organs of Admittance than with, say, Grant Lee Phillips. But the strength of Surface Tracks is that it's able to appeal to both halves of the equation without pissing off either. It's a promising way for Finn to get both of his proverbial musical feet in many doors, early and often.