Oh, wow, if you’ve not heard The Hold Steady before, you’re in for a treat. Led by one of America’s current preeminent songwriters Craig Finn, The Hold Steady combine the Minneapolis punk energy of The Replacements with the passion and sound of Bruce Springsteen to create an amazing (and very American) sound. Finn’s lyrics focus on drug addicts, broken relationships, faith and youth and sometimes a recurring cast of characters who typically live in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
I have two of the bands’ more recent albums in my library.
The first Hold Steady album we’ll listen to is Boys and Girls In America, their 2006 album. This album was apparently something of a commercial break-through for the band, though I think I didn’t become aware of them until much later – in fact, I think writing about “Let There Be Rock” by The Drive-By Truckers in October of 2009 might have been the thing that made me excited about the band (even though I downloaded the album in March of 2008, I probably hadn’t listened to it much at that point). Anyhow, its a mystery at this point what got me interested in the band.
Here we are five years after I downloaded the album and I finally have listened to it enough to not only like it, but to love it. I confess, most of the reason I’ve heard it so much this past month is that I’ve not had time to update this site, so its been the top album on my “Current Sad Clown Rep” playlist. Sometimes, lack of time has its advantages.
The opening verse of “Stuck Between Stations” is the theme of the entire album:
There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right.
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.
Sucking off each other at the demonstrations
Making sure their makeup’s straight
Crushing one another with colossal expectations.
Dependent, undisciplined, and sleeping late.
Craig Finn is going to introduce us to a number of sad, lost characters who party hardy but can’t quite make connections with others, be it because of their addictions or insecurities. Finn introduces us to a woman who “was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian” and “a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” He then launches into an extended musing on the late poet John Berryman:
The devil and John Berryman
Took a walk together.
They ended up on Washington
Talking to the river.
He said ‘I’ve surrounded myself with doctors
And deep thinkers.
But big heads with soft bodies
Make for lousy lovers’
There was that night that we thought John Berryman could fly.
But he didn’t
So he died.
She said ‘You’re pretty good with words
But words won’t save your life’
And they didn’t.
So he died.
Note the repetition of “didn’t/so he died” here. One of Finn’s frequent songwriting choices is to break your expectations about when things repeat – apparent choruses turn out to be verses, verses get repeated in unusual ways (or get immediately repeated), and lines come back with a new twist later in the song. You learn quickly to pay close attention to what he’s doing lyrically the more you listen to his work.
The Hold Steady do sometimes seem like “Craig Finn and The Nicollet Avenue Band” (with apologies to the E Street Band) but, you know, The E-Street band really makes Bruce Springsteen’s song sore and the same is true with the rest of The Hold Steady. Drummer Bobby Drake, guitarist Tad Kublar, bassist Galen Polivka and guitarist Steve Selvidge truly bring every song to glorious, full life.
“Stuck Between Stations” is an excellent introduction to the band and to Craig Finn’s lyrical style. I encourage you to listen to it loud and often.
I’m not linking their main site right now because its been marked as distributing malware. The odds are pretty good somebody added malicious code to their site. Having just experienced something like that here, I totally empathize with them and hope the site is up and clean soon. Here is a link to their seldom-update MySpace page.