Blame Norah Jones, but it would be easy for some critics to dismiss the music of Liza Finn as the work of yet another girl-at-the-piano: the post-adolescent jazz-pop musings of a young, urban woman. But the apparent ordinariness of this 25-year old from North London is precisely what makes her and her music so extraordinary. Finn may compose pretty songs, and even has a pretty voice with which to sing them, but her abilities as a vocalist and a songwriter lift her above the swathes of supposedly like-minded artists with whom she could all too comfortably have been mistakenly grouped.
A classically trained musician, Finn’s piano is arguably her greatest instrument. Her compositions reflect an impressive appreciation for sophisticated song structure and a rare ear for melody, which on occasion results in an irresistible pop hook. Finn’s songwriting is matched by a voice that arrives breezy as a summer’s day, before soaring off into the night sky. But while she can clearly sing, she also knows how to sing a song, a far less common gift in modern music. While her pop sensibilities echo Carole King, Finn’s phrasing at times certainly more than hints at many a late night spent plundering the jazz archives.
Naturally, Finn’s primary thematic concerns appear to revolve around modern life in London town. Perhaps wanting to avoid being the angry city girl, she cleverly veers away from self-absorbed introspection, often preferring instead to present the lives of her peers in song (“How Long”, “Get A Life”). Here Finn becomes keen social commentator of the high street: the characters she presents are each sharply-observed personalities, either to be praised, mocked or pitied (or maybe all three, in the case of the somewhat tragicomic story of “Party Girl”). But thankfully, she never once risks descending into Lily Allen territory, nor does her music become twee (an unfortunate tendency of the otherwise talented Feist). Finn’s refreshing attitude towards the less tolerable aspects of society’s youth is never one of anger or frustration, but more simply resignation and even a sense of adult bewilderment, suggesting a certain maturity and a healthy, knowing detachment — ideal circumstances for putting pen to paper.
When she isn’t referencing sly encounters in the pub or on the tube, Finn uses her music to travel to exotic lands, dropping the names of far away places in a manner that recalls Blue-era Joni Mitchell. She reveals herself as a skilled and concise lyricist on the slinky, itchy road-movie “Driving To Mexico”, which conjures up more hedonistic south-of-the-border imagery in the first two verses than some Eagles albums managed on two sides. Finn already has us hooked, but in the next line chooses to deny us anything further as to how the story’s leads came to be on such a journey (“Ooh-ooh, driving to Mexico/Ooh-ooh, nowhere for us to go”). The device renders this atmospheric tale an unresolved mystery, and a more interesting song for it. Meanwhile, Finn’s kitchen-sink delivery is replaced here by a deeper, more restrained jazz vocal, suggesting plenty of room for future musical direction.
Like many good songwriters, Finn’s successful marriage of the vague and the specific is enhanced by a firm grasp of the universal, which she has begun to allow seep into her work with a growing command. “It’s Too Late” is a classic break-up song performed with a softer, breathy vocal. But when Finn approaches a heavier theme, it’s her light, almost whimsical insertion of the everyday that makes the bare truth of the subject matter all the more heart-wrenching:
“The pillow’s still warm on your side of the bed
Your coffee’s not drunk and your paper’s not read
The dog now needs walking and even he knows
You ain’t going home for a change of clothes…”
Perhaps Liza Finn’s most unique talent lies in these smart juxtapositions: her sunniest upbeat tunes are dyed in dark undertones, while her deeper efforts are presented as throwaway pop. Finn’s is a world where nothing is quite as it seems, and where everything is worthy of a second look — or listen.
This review first appeared on lizafinn.com.
Liza Finn photographed by Tony Hart.