The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
Lord love a desperate motor-mouthed poet. Someone who can't help but blurt out everything he/she sees, reducing the 1000 words to 1 picture ratio into an even balance. My two favorite sufferers of diarreah of the mouth are Mark E. Smith of the Fall and the young ragged Bruce Sprinsteen. Smith for most of his career has maintained a consistent plan for guttural obtuseness, string together words that should mean something in succession, because they sound to damn potent, when in fact they might be the ramblings of a very erudite madman. The Boss, back when he was just The Assistant Manager could weave a story as dense as 300-count cotton. Look at "Thunder Road" or "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" for examples of his post-Dylan, pre-indoctrination brilliance. But really, neither of these buoys on the choppy seas of verbiage are weathering well, so all we are left with is about 55% of hip hop and Craig Finn of The Hold Steady.
Minneapolis as all fuck, you almost picture Finn stumbling drug-addled in the background on some Replacements band photo. The long winter and The Replacements and Husker Du in your life will make you a true believer in the transcendent power of music, and Finn is a true believer. In the follow up to last year's highly brilliant Separation Sunday, Finn and crew round up the cast of Gideon, Charlemagne and Holly and the hood rats and dealers and narrators soaked in blood for another episode of Real Life in Staccato Rhyme. My first listen to this record in its entirety was on an iPod as I walked the courtyard outside the gym where my daughter takes swim lessons. I was in the courtyard because the alpha male Neanderthals that run gyms were going to charge me some outrageous sum to walk their lame indoor track, so in defiance I walked for free outside, and then the slow sizzle of the piano ballad "First Night" came up, a pulse of Finn's main characters and their horrible outcomes, still wistful about that night they met and the drugs that were at once the tie that binds and their undoing. And the honesty with which he croons the drug life and bottoming out, and me staking my claim in life by galloping around the courtyard of an abandoned bible college, it made me feel like the lame douchebag I am. Brilliantly. Really, I love my life before and still, but for a moment, I understood the sick allure of Catholicism, wallowing in the passing muck that I am a fraud and a shame and willing to roll with that. Songcraft.
The rest of the record takes on the pallor of a strained and focused E Street Band, nominally because of keyboard player Franz Nicolay, who, if you ever see in his sartorial splendor, will make you (or at least me anyway) feel like you might as well resort to jumpsuits with your idiotic sense of personal style. This album rocks harder and more classic than past efforts, and really it serves the songs best I think. Finn sings (one shift is that there is more singing to his shout on this one) primarily about drugs - his characters often become secondary to relationships that are built around the attainment and intake thereof. And he makes no moral judgment about the before and after effects, its all stages in either going supernova or collapsing like a dead sun or lingering like an unhitched moon in the void. This gets played out best in "You can Make him Like You" which seems like a simple song about girls and their enabling boyfriends when the line "You can wear his old sweatshirt to cover yourself like a bruise" sneaks in and knocks me off my feet.
Finn's rapid fire, bitingly clever delivery matched with the band's formidable soul power rock makes this one of the few albums this year that has any psychic impact. The lead single "Chips Ahoy!" about a druggy girlfriend who has a knack with picking the horses barrels through with the subtlety of Eddie Money, and you are thankful for it. You get a taste of off-the-rails rock abandon of their previous records without needing to descend into the thickets. Unlike most bands with an engaging but technically limited vocalist, the band swirls and moves around the songs rather than just ploughing through them. Maybe My Morning jacket is the only hip band to pull this off, and personally, The Hold Steady has more bite to it than Jim James and crew. You do get the feeling that Finn's starting to phase some of the supposedly autobiographical (if its not, he's amazingly convincing as a writer) self-destruction out of his narrative's present tense, and is beginning to look upon it nostalgically, philosophically. And while Holly may sit weeping in a hospital room looking for redemption in "First Night" or while all hell is breaking loose on "Same Kooks" we can rest assured that all the poetry of rock-n-roll has not been marketed and demographically decimated. Album of the year, baby. You can take that all the way to your dealer.
(Alex V. Cook's book of rocknroll observations, 'Darkness, Racket and Twang' is available now from the SideCartel)