It's not easy to hit a target when you aren't sure what exactly your quarry looks-or sounds-like. Don't misunderstand: Liam Finn knew what he and co-producer Burke Reid wanted to accomplish with FOMO, the follow-up to the New Zealand dynamo's 2008 breakout I'll Be Lightning. But they also recognised that capturing that je ne nais sais quoi that makes or breaks one-of-a-kind songs wouldn't be a cakewalk.
"We wanted to create an atmosphere that was immediate." Finn explains. "Nothing over-intellectualized or technically flashy. Songs that connected with everyday listeners who simply appreciate tunes that trigger tapping feet-or a lump in the throat. "We wanted to create music that, once you got into it, you could appreciate was good... but when you first heard a song, there was just something about it that made you respond, instantly." That trigger might be as rudimentary as a specific timbre or style of production, but whatever the case, Finn knew all those cues had to come from his gut, and be carried along by songs ripe with integrity.
Liam Finn already knows plenty about what audiences respond to. He toured with his father's band at the age of 14, and cut two e.p's and two albums with his first band, Betchadupa while still in his teens. In the three years since his solo debut I'll Be Lightning and Champagne in Seashells (his 2009 collaborative EP with tour-mate Eliza-Jane Barnes), Finn has crisscrossed the globe as a headline artist and support act with Pearl Jam, Black Keys, and Wilco and even cut a record with side project BARB he shares with fellow kiwi's Connan Mockasin and Lawrence Arabia. He returned to New Zealand and his little beach cottage (or 'Bach' as they say in NZ) to write and polish the songs for his sophomore full-length, yet found himself a bit stymied by being out of the spotlight-where anyone who has seen him live will attest he's quite comfortable-and back in the small pond from whence he sprang.
That friction is at the heart of the album title, an acronym for "fear of missing out." "My family and most of my good friends are all musicians, so they're always traveling, too." Catching up via mobile phone or e-mail, looking at Facebook photos of fun in faraway places, "FOMO" peppers their exchanges. "It's a very natural way to be, but it's also a slightly tragic term, because you should never wish you were somewhere else." And since Finn made the record at the tail end of 2010, at the height of summer in New Zealand, it often lived up to its title. "Every day that I went into the studio was gorgeous outside. Friends would be calling, saying 'Come to this great party... come out and play!'" Sorry gang, there's a record to finish first.
Finn enlisted Burke Reid (formerly of Australian combo Gerling) to produce the record with him. The Canadian-born guitarist and songwriter didn't boast a résumé as long and storied as other candidates for the post, but Finn recognized him as a kindred spirit. What he didn't anticipate was that his right-hand man held very different ideas about what constitutes a great record, and how to go about making one. When presented with myriad songs in various stages of readiness, Reid was most enthusiastic about the ones furthest from completion. "He didn't respond to the finished songs as much as he did to the little snippets of ideas, things as simple as just a beat, a melody, or a little keyboard riff. He picked up on those and said, 'Let's try to expand on these!'"
It was an ideal strategy to capture that elusive spark Finn was after. It was also a potential recipe for hurt feelings. "It was quite confrontational at first," he says of their collaborative process. "But that's why I wanted to work with Burke. I didn't want it to be easy process. I wanted someone who pushed me to perfect something different." FOMO couldn't be an obvious, logical progression, or merely I'll Be Lightning, Part 2. "Solo artists are pretty easy to peg," Finn demurs. Unless they forge into unfamiliar territory. Given its dynamic range of sound and instrumentation, you'd never guess FOMO was the written and played by one man-unless you've witnessed one of Finn's solo gigs, which feature him bouncing between instruments, piling on loops and layers, and working up the sweat of several men with his head-shaking, body-quaking performance style.
Clocking in at 36 minutes, FOMO teems with seemingly off-the-cuff performances, and raw exuberance. The cavernous echo and angelic backing vocals of "Neurotic World" hint at '60s girl groups, but spiraling keyboards, vapor-trail guitars and the convoluted emotions of its lyric propel that album opener in unexpected directions. Irrepressible sing-along "Cold Feet" marries a sunny '60s guitar riff to the timeless sentiment of wondering what will become of a summer romance as autumn approaches. "The Struggle" bristles with distorted guitars and vocals, anchored by a bass riff straight out of a vintage TV action show, then quickly gives way to the cheeky bounce and sweet harmonies of "Little Words." On the crackling closer, "Jump Your Bones," Finn sounds almost tongue-tied with jubilation; it's the perfect send-off for a record that sounds incapable of keeping the artist's emotions in check-not that he'd bother to try.
"I made I'll Be Lightning completely on my own, engineered and produced it, and that was quite a cathartic process at the time. This time I wanted to make a record that was truly reflective of where I'm at now." Whereas the primary feeling that inspired Finn's debut was heartbreak, FOMO encompasses a wider spectrum of sentiments: the artist's struggle to grow and evolve; the international nomad versus the small town New Zealand boy; and, happily, newfound love. "Making this record, I got to rediscover myself," he concludes. And that person is on full display throughout these ten songs. Fear of change holds some artists back. Not Liam Finn: FOMO is a great leap forward.