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Meet the New Boss 

The Hold Steady's version of classic rock is full of sex, drugs, and Jesus

Wednesday, Oct 12 2005
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Over the last couple of years, we've heard from a succession of new groups that sound a lot like old groups. We've seen the new Joy Division (Interpol), the new Jam (Futureheads), and the new T. Rex (Devendra Banhart). Hell, we've even seen a new OMD (hello, Elkland), and that's scraping the bottom of the barrel. New wave, post-punk, freak-folk, and hair metal have all come and gone and come back again, so it shouldn't be surprising that one of the best records of the year -- the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday -- sounds familiar. The shock, then, is what it sounds like: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.

That's right, the hoary specter of classic friggin' rock is back. We're not even talking Led Zep here. We're talking Bob Seger, Thin Lizzy, Cheap Trick, and -- I shit you not -- Billy Joel. The Hold Steady offers straight-up bar-band melodrama, with huge, stupid guitar riffs, thumping drums, and tinkly pianos. This anthemic, meat-and-potatoes sound has landed the group on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and Last Call With Carson Daly, as well as on the cover of the Village Voice. Before you get your faux-hawk in a tangle, check out what Minneapolis City Pages writer Jessica Hopper had to say about the band on NPR's All Things Considered: "The magic of the Hold Steady is the dichotomy between almost -- you know I mean this in the best possible way -- the dumbness of the big classic rock with the elaborate, ornate, almost literary aspect of the lyrics."

Craig Finn, 34-year-old bespectacled leader of the Hold Steady, is indeed one of the most resourceful rock songwriters to come along in ages. (Sasha Frere-Jones paired him with the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle in a recent New Yorker profile.) Here's a guy who's able to connect the dots between Robbie Robertson, Patty Smyth, and Beverly Sills in one song ("The Swish") and to cross-reference writer Nelson Algren, poet W.B. Yeats, and British folk-fusioners Dixie Dregs in another ("Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night"). A guy who can reduce original sin down to these nifty lines: "I heard the dude blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ I heard they were naked when they got busted/ I heard things ain't been the same since." A musician who can compose an epic, heartbreaking, downright hilarious concept album, Separation Sunday, about a teenage suburban girl who descends into a world of drugs, sex, and religious redemption.

Of course, great lyrics will only get you so far. From 1994 to 2000, Finn barked his noirish yarns in Lifter Puller, a Minneapolis art-punk quartet that gained critical acclaim and little else. After the group broke up and Finn and his wife moved to Brooklyn, Finn took a break from music, concentrating on writing fiction and comedy until he found an unlikely inspiration.

He got a call from a comedy troupe he knew, asking him to put together a band to play classic rock covers in between skits. After hacking through some AC/DC and Thin Lizzy tunes with some friends, Finn had one of those light bulb moments.

"Everywhere we went it was 'House of Jealous Lovers' and other big songs of the dance-punk phenomenon," Finn recalls via phone from New York. "This was a time that everywhere you went there was a DJ, even restaurants with four tables had a DJ. And we were just two guitars, bass, and drums -- it was like a palate cleanser, it was the greatest taste ever."

Along with Lifter Puller bassist-turned-guitarist Tad Kubler, drummer Bobby Drake, and bassist Galen Polivka, Finn started writing songs that were in direct opposition to the popular groups of the day. "At that time there were rock bands, but they were either matching-suit garage bands or stoner rock, which to me celebrates the really stupid parts of rock 'n' roll," Finn says. "So we said, 'Let's see if we can make a smart rock band.'"

When the Hold Steady's first LP, Almost Killed Me, came out in 2004, it was obvious that the musicians had succeeded. Over Kubler's bruising, balls-to-the-wall riffs, Finn sang like a man unloading 30 years of cultural detritus, bellowing cranky put-downs ("The '80s almost killed me/ Let's not recall 'em quite so fondly") and odd cultural allusions (Meat Loaf, Right Said Fred), and weaving together lurid tales of teenage wastelands ("Went through a skater phase/ Went through a raver phase/ Went through a razor blade phase/ I guess you could say I went through $100 a day").

The world, however, wasn't quite ready for what Finn called "classic rock with a small 'c.'" As with Finn's past works, the mass public ignored the album, even while the critics raved. (Spin and Rolling Stone both placed the disc first on their Best Records You Didn't Hear in 2004 lists.)

Instead of sending off his résumé to Comedy Central or descending into a heroin funk, Finn sat down and wrote the best album of his career. Separation Sunday, which came out in May on French Kiss Records, follows a Catholic-school girl named Holly as she lapses into booze, drugs, and sex, and then finds God again. Over the course of the 11 songs, she hooks up with a pimp in sweat pants, gets screwed by religion and soccer players, scores in the back of movie theaters, and fantasizes about running away ("We didn't go to Dallas/ Because Jackie Onassis said it ain't safe for Catholics yet").

The story's your basic parental nightmare, one that Finn took directly from his back pages, growing up in suburban Minneapolis. "They're composites of people I knew," he says. "I'd just end up in these situations, trying to buy weed or something, where I'd meet these ridiculous people."

With Lifter Puller, Finn's characters tended to be gloriously miserable -- there were no happy endings to the songs -- but with Separation Sunday he's attempting a more complex milieu. "One thing I wanted to try to get across is that being a teenager isn't all like James Dean riding around in a convertible with the wind blowing through your hair," Finn says. "It's embarrassing and confusing and weird and embarrassing again."

He certainly captures the contradictions of adolescence, from the excitement of mosh pits, Whip-Its, and Catholic fetishism to the boredom and anxiety of endless driving, lame sex, and late-night ER visits. Even more than before, Finn details his world with a novelist's eye, swapping points of view and layering meanings. And then there's Holly's religious reawakening, not something you hear discussed in music often, if ever. "When you do these things -- partying or sex or things like that -- there's this nagging conscience that doesn't go away," Finn explains. "That's how I represent the church on the record -- being a real foundation to go back to."

All of his vivid storytelling might've been for naught if the band hadn't come up with such expressive music. Between the expansive keyboard work of new member Franz Nicolay, the harmony vocals of Nicole Wills, and the bluesy blowing of a horn section, it's hard not to draw comparisons to the grandiosity of Born to Run-era Springsteen. The similarity is most evident on "Stevie Nix," in which Kubler's rollicking riffs, Nicolay's delicate scales, and Finn's raw, emotive singing could very well launch a million Thunderbirds down the New Jersey Turnpike. Elsewhere, Kubler's AC/DC fixation has been tempered a bit, with the emphasis more on catchy hooks than bludgeoning noise.

Not everyone has been so impressed with the Hold Steady, however. After witnessing the band at South by Southwest, Matador Records founder Gerard Cosley dissed it on his blog, comparing the quintet to "latter period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly."

"If someone told me there was a band with Charles Nelson Reilly fronting Soul Asylum, I'd be first in line," Finn laughs. "The roots of this band sort of go back to comedy in the way it formed, but I also have this theory that I always argue with people in bars when I'm drunk that there's no good rock band ever that wasn't funny in some way."

As New York's dance-punk revolution grows ever quieter, the Hold Steady appears to be getting the last laugh. Maybe classic rock is the new loud. And chunky, balding Midwestern guys in glasses are the new Brad Pitt. Or maybe not. Either way, Finn is perfectly content just the way he is. "We wear our Midwesternness on our sleeves -- from our canned beer to sports to our haircuts, things like that. We don't look or act or feel like a New York band."

A certain band from New Jersey, perhaps.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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