The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady seemingly came out of nowhere to release what became the album of 2005, Separation Sunday. Held together by the core of Craig Finn (singer) and Tad Kubler (lead guitar), both from ’90s act Lifter Puller, Hold Steady weld their tales of trash culture, excess and wasted youth on salvaged and recycled barroom riffs. As a couple of mid-west transplants by way of Minneapolis to the Bronx, their sound hearkens back to growing up in a suburban wasteland, where classic rock dominates the airwaves. The kind of place where there’s nothing else to do but get high and drive around. Their upbringing is reflected in the power chords and thunderous rhythm section that fuel the music. This sound underscores Finn’s marble-mouthed warble, which sings tales that conflate religious and chemical excess; songs that are positively a wonder to behold. What could have sounded like retro-kitsch in lesser band’s hands, comes off positively refreshing and invigorating. It’s an Exile on Main Street for a whole new generation.
On Separation Sunday, the album rests upon a loose song cycle centering on Holly, a casualty of the party-going lifestyle. As anyone who came-of-age after 1968, they either know someone like this or is/was someone like this; it’s the kid with the heart of gold, who’ll do anything for anyone — the former alter-boy, girl scout, or valedictorian, who falls in with a bad crowd (as Finn sings, “the real sweet girl, who’s made some not sweet friends”). Or, as Finn sings on the album’s centerpiece, “Stevie Nix”:
She got screwed up by religion/she got screwed by soccer players/She got high for the first time in the camps down by the banks of the Mississippi river/Lord to be seventeen forever/She got confused about the truth/she came to in a confession/She got high for the last time in the camps down by the banks of the river/Lord to be 33 forever…/She got strung out the scene/she got scared when it got druggy/The way the whispers bit like fangs in the last hour of the parties/Lord to be 33 forever.
These are the kids who get high at seventeen and come down when they’re turning thirty-three, or forty-three, or never.
Throughout the tracks, Finn refuses to take the easy way out and mythologize the characters; he has the steely-eyed view of the morning-after survivor. Although he treats them with respect and compassion, he never lets on this is a lifestyle choice as much as it is a series of poor decisions, compounded by accidents and the all-too-human capacity for self-deception.
I have to say, though, that not since the heyday of the Afghan Whigs has bad news sounded so positively joyous. The lyrical dexterity Finn employs, coupled with the thick power chords and crunch, carry the album from one strong song to the next. Not only is it one of the most satisfying albums I’ve had the pleasure of listening to in recent years, it’s also one of the most consistent.
Frenchkiss Records: www.frenchkissrecords.com