Like Father, Like Son
Liam Finn Impresses With I'll Be Lightning

When I was 14 years old, my family adopted a cat named Pebbles.

Her mother’s name was Marblehead, so calling her Pebbles just seemed to make sense. She was a rambunctious little kitten, the runt of her litter, with black, brown and white fur, and I fell in love with her immediately. Which was weird, because only a week earlier, I had been arguing passionately against getting a cat at all.

I had a bunch of primitive recording equipment set up in our basement, you see, with cables and wires and tape everywhere, and I was certain – certain – that any cat we brought into our home would chew through those wires and cables, and piss all over those carefully labeled tapes. The cat, I thought, would be the ruination of my budding recording career, always underfoot, spoiling important sessions, meowing during vocal takes.

Yeah, I was an idiot. Pebbles was a great cat, and my recording career went along its natural course. Many years later, in fact, I named my little record label after her – Pebbles the Cat Records.

As the years went by, we all marveled at how well Pebbles was holding up. She turned 19 last May, and seemed as healthy as a kitten. According to a handy chart I just found on the Internet, that made her 92 in human years, with no end in sight. I saw Pebbsy at Christmastime, and she was as affectionate and wonderful as ever.

Pebbles the cat died on Sunday, at 19 years and nearly six months. She’d had a series of small strokes, and lost the use of her back legs (and, by the end, one front one). This was all within a week’s time. She was helpless, and probably in a lot of pain, so the vet agreed that the best thing to do was put her to sleep. I wasn’t there for any of this, sadly. But on the bright side, I never had to see her at less than full health.

Nearly 20 years. That’s a long time for a cat. I’ll miss her.

* * * * *

The big news out of Hollywood this week is, of course, the death of Heath Ledger. I don’t have a lot to say about that – I liked him in Brokeback Mountain, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in The Dark Knight. Interestingly, Ledger was filming Terry Gilliam’s new movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, when he died. Man, Gilliam’s just cursed, isn’t he? Anyway, Ledger was a good actor just coming into his own, and it’s a shame to see him die so young.

The other big news, of course, is the Oscar nominations, and there are a few surprises this year. For a movie that came and went without much hoopla, Michael Clayton did very well. And while I’m not surprised at all that There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men will be duking it out for the most honors, I’m beyond pleased to see a strong showing for Juno, one of my favorites of the year.

I’m not sure which of the two front-runners I like more. Both are mesmerizing, difficult efforts with dark overtones. Both have endings that have left audiences confounded, but which made me love the films more. Both movies have as a central message that the world is beyond redemption, a theme I respond well to. And both are anchored by devastating performances – Javier Bardem in No Country, as the ruthless Anton Chigurh, and Daniel Day-Lewis in Blood, as the ever-descending Daniel Plainview.

Both movies were justly rewarded with best picture nods, and with nominations in acting, writing and directing categories. For me, it’s a toss-up, I think – both films are astounding works of art. Of course, my heart lies with smaller, quirkier fare like Juno and Waitress, but I won’t be disappointed no matter which of the frontrunners wins.

Other things I was pleased to see: Persepolis snuck into the animated feature category, and while I haven’t seen the film, I love the books. Jason Reitman got a nod for directing Juno, which brought a smile to my face. Michael Moore has some real competition in the documentary this year with No End in Sight, an actual scholarly examination of the Iraq War. And Brad Bird’s brilliant Pixar film, Ratatouille, was honored several times, most notably with an original screenplay nod.

I do have one major quibble, though, and that’s the fact that Jonny Greenwood’s incredible score for There Will Be Blood is ineligible for the nomination. Apparently, his score uses some elements of prior pieces Greenwood had written – it’s all original, but some passages are not new. I bent this very rule to award Brian Wilson’s SMiLE the best album of 2005, so I don’t know why the Academy can’t do the same. But even so, I would highly recommend picking up the score on CD. It’s amazing stuff.

I’m not even going to predict this year. The race is so wide open in so many different categories that I don’t know where to start. Well, Day-Lewis is a shoo-in for best actor, and Bardem should win supporting actor. (Thankfully, they’re not going up against each other – it’s a win-win for both actors.) But other than that, I have no idea. All I know is I have a bunch of movies to see, and about a month to see them.

* * * * *

I’m wary of progeny albums.

Despite popular belief, musical talent is not hereditary. You need look no further than the Zappa family. Dweezil is a pretty good guitarist, but isn’t a patch on his father, and has spent most of his career imitating Frank’s sound. Ahmet can sing, but that’s about it. And as for Moon and Diva, well, if you can’t say anything nice…

The record industry loves a good father-son story, no matter the musical content. Sometimes they luck out, as they did with Julian Lennon – the guy’s a good musician, and his last album, Photograph Smile, was excellent. And sometimes they strike out, as they did with Sean Lennon. Two albums in, and he’s becoming the poster child for misplaced nepotism.

So it’s with trepidation that I approach any record by the child of an artist I admire. The question I’m constantly asking myself is, would I buy this if not for the familial connection? Here’s a f’rinstance: Liam Finn. He’s the son of Neil Finn, one of my favorite songwriters and the man behind Crowded House and Split Enz. The elder Finn’s melodic gift is a rare one, and even though it’s not fair to compare the son with the father, you can see my hesitation.

Gladly, Liam Finn’s debut album, I’ll Be Lightning, is very good. And it’s very good on its own terms – there’s very little of Neil Finn here, aside from a definite focus on melody and songcraft. Liam’s sound is much more scrappy, with traces of Elliott Smith here and there. The younger Finn’s voice is lighter and more supple than his father’s, and his songs float in the air a bit more. A song like “Remember When” is a solid melodic effort, though, and “Second Chance” makes an indie-pop racket light years removed from Neil’s more sedate work with Crowded House.

The more I listen to I’ll Be Lightning, the more I like it on its own terms. “Fire in Your Belly” is a sweet song, and it’s followed up by the even-sweeter a cappella “Lullaby.” “Wise Man” is a miniature epic, with a swiftly-strummed crescendo chorus and an extended coda. And the delightful Beatle-isms of the title track (with Neil Finn on bass) are a highlight. But it’s the dreamy “Wide Awake on the Voyage Home” that steals the show for me, Liam wearing his Elliott Smith influence on his sleeve.

So, would I buy this even without the Neil Finn collection? I think I would. This is a promising start for Liam Finn, who establishes himself here as a good songwriter in his own right. The sticker on the front of the CD makes no mention of his famous dad, and that’s how it should be – this album is good enough to stand on its own merits. Hell, I’d say it’s even better than that new Crowded House album…

I think I’ll save my examination of John Nathan-Turner and Doctor Who for next week. Also, January 29 marks the first great new music day of the year, or so I expect, with Joe Jackson, the Mars Volta and Chris Walla. Be there.

See you in line Tuesday morning.