the hold steady

Showing 13 posts tagged the hold steady

A Positive Jam.

What a week, right? Maura and Idolator are 50% the reason I started writing about music and opened my little punk heart up to the goodness of pop, so reading her on Kelly Clarkson was fantastic. I think I speak for everyone when I say we hope you’re doing okay, Maura!

As Hendrik already pointed out, I’m a classy young gentleman from Melbourne, Prison Island. Most of the time I’m a music critic, though hopefully less stultifying than that suggests, as well as a TV and sometimes radio host. For the last three hours I’ve been listening to a playlist I made for a shower I was meant to take that long ago and I mention this because I want you to know that anybody who tells you that you’re weird for playing “Kickstart My Heart” out of your laptop as you walk into the bathroom is not really your friend. 

Right, let’s take a look at the lineup: We’ve got Bobby Drake, the drummer on all but The Hold Steady’s first record; Galen Polivka, bass player; Tad Kubler, the man behind the electric guitar; and Craig Finn, poet laureate of Minneapolis. That last bit’s technically untrue, but regrettably so, because he’s managed to romanticize the city into a place that seems worth visiting. I mean, I’m sure it’s a lovely city and all, but why else would you go there but to take a tour of places which Craig Finn’s mentioned in Hold Steady songs

The only time I ever doubted my appreciation of The Hold Steady was due to Christopher Weingarten, who said the following as part of PopMatters’ “What’s the Write Word?” series:

“If are [sic] an aspiring rock writer, you are an invariably boring person and I could care less about the completely mundane details of your life, and the completely typical, predictable emotions you feel when listening to the Hold Steady.”

Typical and predictable? I didn’t want to be either of those things! At that point I only knew one other person who liked The Hold Steady - I wasn’t paying much attention to the critical press - and I thought being able to share those emotions with someone else was one of the greatest things ever.

If you don’t know The Hold Steady, I want to finish the week with you loving them, and if you love The Hold Steady, I want to finish the week with you thinking “Damn, that dude gets it.” I’d like to help soundtrack a cumulative hour or so of your life and shine a light on the ways I’ve been affected by one of our relatively young century’s best songwriters. In this interview with Magnet Magazine, Craig Finn said “Irony is definitely the enemy of the Hold Steady. I want to be honest. Not that everything I sing about has happened to me, but [there are] honest feelings.” Welcome to a week of honest feelings. This one’s for you, Chris.

Track

Barfruit Blues

Artist

The Hold Steady

Album

Almost Killed Me

The Hold Steady - "Barfruit Blues"

With the fan base Finn and Kubler had built with their previous band Lifter Puller, The Hold Steady’s debut was hardly at risk of flopping commercially. However as we’ll see later in the week, they aren’t immune to being panned critically, so Almost Killed Me's warm reception is a testament to how ready people were to hear the band back together again. This is the first chapter in The Hold Steady’s epic narrative; predominantly it centers on Finn and “the bar band” but it also introduces Hallelujah (mostly known as Holly), Charlemagne and Gideon, the three characters who provide the main focus of The Hold Steady’s stories.

This is the first time we see Holly as Mary, a friend of the band, drunkenly makes out with “that Hallelujah chick.” Later in the night Holly confides in Finn, and reveals some of her tragedy with half-hearted defensiveness. This is also the first time Finn meets Holly, an occasion which is referenced a few times in later albums, though we get a much more detailed look at the nights which led her here on their next album, Separation Sunday.

In terms of instrumentation, Almost Killed Me features the smallest range of their albums. It’s pretty meat-and-potatoes rock, but the extraordinary difference to other guitar-bass-drum bands is Tad Kubler’s guitar lines. Kubler’s solos really stick out, especially on “Most People Are DJs" which, given the impetus for the song’s title, really seems like a special Fuck You to the people who’re spinning other people’s records rather than making their own.

I think that DJing, like rock criticism, tends to be a way for people to participate in the “scene” without taking the risks to the ego that go along with producing music or any other art. 

Do You Want Me To Tell It Like It’s Boy Meets Girl And The Rest Is History?

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"She says always remember never to trust me. She said that the first night that she met me."

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Jane used to be an artist but now she spends her days convincing people to sponsor lost dogs’ homes. She’s one of those people out on the streets whose gaze you have to find the most innocuous way of avoiding when you notice you’re about to walk past them otherwise they’ll take half an hour to guilt you out of your money with good causes. When I met her though, she was an artist doing a degree at the University of Melbourne. “I want to bring art therapy to the world,” she said. “I want people to realise how important it is.” I didn’t really buy it but I nodded anyway. The first conversation we had started with her asking me “So when was the last time you got rejected?” Four hours later and drunk on free gallery champagne we were sitting in a damp corner at The Toff’s rooftop bar. We made out in between her tears from getting rejected by a girl in her class the morning before we met. “I’m 85% a lesbian, I made out with a 32 year-old at a lesbian bar last week,” she told me. “I’m not really looking for a relationship.”

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"She said I won’t be much for conversation if we go into the rest of this."

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There was that night Jack squeezed into Jill’s size -50 jeans and we saw Mike Fielding do a DJ set. The club photographer shot me drunk and dazed which is a good way of looking, apparently. We smoked menthols at the upstairs bar and made friends with the Hitchers and Tony Harrisons as we passed each other on the way to the bathroom. Jane left halfway through the night but I decided to stay; at that point chasing her felt more like getting in the way. The club photographer shot her as she was about to burst into tears. I told her she looked beautiful and she told me she was out of cigarettes. A $500 phone bill later and we were pretty sure we were in love.

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"I have to really try so hard not to fall in love, I have to concentrate when we kiss."

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There was that night when Lola had to walk the police through the night before. She couldn’t remember what happened after the club, just what the guy’s shoes looked like. She heard him moving around the apartment the morning after but she was too scared to go out and confront him. We never went back to New Guernica.

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"I like the crowds at the really big shows. People touching people that they don’t even know."

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There was that night I threw that costume party at my place to get her to come and see me but she never showed up, so we ate a bag of shrooms and walked around the neighborhood. That was the night “POWER” came out and Jack said he hoped the vocals sounded better on the album. Two kids had their first kiss there and a year later they’re still together. When I knew my Jay Gatsby ploy hadn’t worked we took a walk to my old house. Feeling bold we did a lap around the yard but Jack accidentally knocked over and smashed some ceramic ornament. We left pretty quickly.

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"I guess the heavy stuff ain’t quite at its heaviest."

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On the last night I caught the last bus and the last tram to her place to help her break through her bedroom door that she wedged some drape in and made it impossible to open. We slept on the couch and in the morning she said we shouldn’t see each other any more. I got the 48 back to the city as heavy rain caused the colours of the city to stand out against the monolithic grey office buildings. As I wandered down Swanston Street listening to Separation Sunday on a borrowed iPod I was once again alone, but I didn’t feel so lonely.

Certain Songs Get Scratched Into Our Souls.

The Hold Steady provoke fervent adoration; if you like them, you probably REALLY like them. They’re just one of those bands which grow into their audience and become fastened to their hearts. Except they’re not just one of those bands, as if there’s some random chance that any time a band forms they might have a knack for infecting people regardless of their ability to play their instruments. The Hold Steady become meaningful to people in very deliberate, totally explicable ways. 


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"They are so (almost painfully) American. I mean I love them completely but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would translate. ‘Shouty shouty beer droll shout.’"

"I think Craig Finn sings about a lot of universal things as well, though. I mean, there are plenty of people I know who I can imagine having a pipe made from a Pringles can.”

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I once thought that The Hold Steady aren’t a popular band, and I still feel inclined to say that despite evidence to the contrary. In meeting new people, the small talk inevitably turns to music, and when they hear me say that my favorite band is The Hold Steady they unfailingly respond with a blank stare, but a couple months ago they came here and packed the Hi-Fi to the walls. I managed to get a seat in the upstairs area but I had to buy ciders for two girls first; they’d apparently been fans of the band for years. Commercially the band must be doing okay because they’re on a bunch of soundtracks despite not making very soundtrack-y music. By that I mean is it any surprise that The Temper Trap, despite making the most neutered sleep-rock this side of The Shins, are packing out arenas while The Hold Steady are (true to their own mythology) still essentially a bar band? That dreamy, generic muzak is perfect for all the equally dreamy, generic scenes that plague cinemas. Two episodes of One Tree Hill are named after Hold Steady songs but I don’t think they actually used the songs in the episodes, so while it’s a nice nod it probably didn’t help the band at all. That show was pretty good until they skipped four years between the fourth and fifth seasons.


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"What’s your favorite song of theirs?"

“‘Don’t Let Me Explode’. I like the piano.”

"That’s a good song."

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They also don’t have the sex appeal of their most frequent comparison. Next to Springsteen they really look kinda unfortunate. Kubler has a Cool Dad vibe going on and Finn looks like a substitute English teacher and dances on stage a bit like a seizure victim. They don’t have an equivalent intrigue or mystique, and if history has shown anything it’s that people like their rock and roll with a little fuckability. The band have never been embroiled in a major scandal (some words just go together so perfectly like “embroiled” and “scandal”) and they’ve basically never had a reason to be in the press for anything other than the quality of their music, which makes The Hold Steady one of the most authentic, credible bands in the history of music. Being able to maintain critical appeal (barring Heaven Is Whenever but more on that later), creative satisfaction and a growing audience without resorting to tabloid fodder is an extremely difficult thing to do, but the fact that they have is a testament to Craig Finn and Tad Kubler’s intelligence. As a writer Finn is fixated on kids who can’t stop fucking up, but the way The Hold Steady conduct themselves is totally adult.


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"If Craig Finn had a tumblr, what would he reblog and caption ‘Spirit Animal’?"

"A Miller High Life."

"Who would be his top tumblr crush?"

"Probably nobody we know."

"I think he’d get a kick out of On The Bro’d."

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The Hold Steady have only been releasing albums since 2004 but it feels like they’ve been around for three times that length. I suspect part of this is to do with their sound which is totally classic; one of the aspects of their music that I really love is the way they combine piano with really gutsy guitar licks, and if you go back to the 60s and 70s you can hear bands like Faces (and a thousand others but its their use of it I like the most) doing basically the same thing, albeit leaning with a groove towards blues. Finn’s lyrics are Kerouac-ian in that they center on the restlessness and self-immolation of kids in America, so what does it mean that his stories would fit right in fifty years ago? Western civilization has been unrecognisably transformed since “On The Road” and the beat generation but we’re still burning ourselves out in essentially the same way. Of course this could just be me confusing Finn’s characters as being a true representation of the youth, but the way so many people identify with and feel affinity for them suggests that Finn’s words get at some truth about what it’s like to be young and alive.

Track

Banging Camp

Artist

The Hold Steady

Album

Separation Sunday

The Hold Steady - "Banging Camp"

Last night I listened to Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life all the way through for the first time since it was released and I thought it was fucking beautiful. Sometimes a record comes along at the perfect time and it becomes inseparable from a part of your life where you’re going through things that the record articulates with seemingly prescient clarity, and I can already sense that happening with David Comes To Life and the winter (Australia!) of 2011. In Larry Fitzmaurice’s review he makes a connection to The Hold Steady via “the blunt and effective riffing,” but what they also have in common is the element of story. In both personal attachment and narrative structure, Fucked Up’s latest record is quite similar to Separation Sunday.

The Hold Steady’s second album unveils Holly’s backstory and her adventures across the country with Gideon and Charlemagne. It isn’t strictly a prequel to Almost Killed Me; on “Don’t Let Me Explode" we hear Holly telling the fabricated story her and Gideon invented on "Killer Parties”, the last track of the previous album, so the chronology is somewhat ambiguous. Of The Hold Steady’s five albums, Separation Sunday is the most densely fictional. Where the others take detours to tell stories about other kids unrelated to the central three, this one’s told entirely from their shifting perspectives. Consequently, it’s the most detailed and revealing account of the “unified scene,” tying it all together through the eyes of Holly the Hoodrat.

When looked at as parts of a collective story, the individual albums seem like necessary and integral chapters adding to a sweeping meditation on the destruction and redemption of boys and girls in America. However, in The Hold Steady’s early days when this congruity was less apparent, I suppose I can see why Tom Breihan would call Almost Killed Me “a tangled mess” and say things like “Finn’s songs wheel precariously from one unhinged lyrical idea to the next, almost never stopping for choruses or going out of their way to fit into any sort of structure…” Evaluating the albums as individual pieces undermines the episodic structure of Finn’s story, but it’s difficult to do otherwise when the next chapter hadn’t even been written yet. Breihan’s a good critic despite the surprisingly critical review he gave Separation Sunday, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn’t have prophetic foresight regarding The Hold Steady’s career arc.

Finn’s storytelling is detailed if not comprehensive, revealing foibles and idiosyncrasies about the characters which make them far easier to connect with than were they built from cliches. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of drugs, bars and stolen cars, but details like “Holly wore a string around her finger,” “she’s got blue black ink scratched into her lower back that says ‘Damn Right I’ll Rise Again’,” and “Gideon’s got a pipe made from a Pringles can” are the kind of unusual particulars that give dimension to Finn’s America. 

This is also when Franz Nicolay joined the band as the keyboardist after playing on a few tracks from Almost Killed Me. His contribution would span five years and end before the genesis of Heaven Is Whenever. But more on that later.

Or Do You Want It Like A Murder Mystery?

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"He was drawn up in the dark up at Penetration Park. He says he’s got your medication."

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Eric was a damn good dancer. We make certain assumptions about people based on things like appearance and occupation, so if I said he was a bespectacled apprentice electrician who once left a Stone Sour t-shirt at my house would your first thought be “I bet he has the grace and fluidity of movement of a swan made of clouds”? We knew him because he started dating Ellen, who we only knew because she’d dated a friend of ours who we stopped hanging out with after they broke up. We chose Cheryl, so to speak.

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"He’s done with all the parties, he’s covered in contusions."

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There was that night at Caramel’s house when Eric said he felt like he could tell me anything. He was a pretty macho dude most of the time, and given his friends he kinda had to be. We never had that many meaningful conversations but it meant a lot that he trusted me. We smoked cigars outside the garage in the rain and he taught me about French inhaling. Only for douchebags.

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"He was dreadlocked in the dorms in the Colorado corn. He says he’s got your vegetation." 

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There was that night when he dressed up like Bollo for the party I threw for Jane. “I’ve got a late birthday present for you, man,” he said so we went around the side of the house. After that he couldn’t stop shuffling. We ended the night listening to sad songs played out of phone speakers and he fell asleep on a couch outside in the middle of winter.

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"Guys go for looks, girls go for status. There are so many nights when this is just how it happens." 

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Then there was that time that I started getting worried. He and Ellen had been broken up for a while but they were still friends. He dropped into her place during a party after some function wearing a suit and a red tie. “You’re looking sharp,” I said. “Yeah, I was at a function and seeing as I was wearing a suit I thought I’d complete the image by snorting lines in the bathroom with a hundred dollar note.” I believed him and thought nothing of it, but when he started cutting lines on the kitchen bench and ignoring everybody, it became concerning.

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"He’s done with DVDs, he’s fully entertained." 

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The next time I saw him was in photos in a slideshow. I got the news in passing via a group text invitation from Ellen to go bowling. “We aren’t coping sitting at home feeling sad and confused so we thought we’d go out and be together at this sad time, have a drink, have a bowl and remember our special friend.” From there I pieced it together from posts filling up his Facebook wall. Kathryn was the first person I told. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” she said. “Are you okay?” I didn’t know what I expected her to say but anything sounded like exactly what I needed to hear coming from her.

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"It was song number three on John’s last CD."

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I planned my outfit the night before but on the morning I kept putting on and taking off this scarf I stole from a thrift store the year before. Kathryn told me some guys can do suits and scarves and some guys can’t, but she said I was tall enough to pull it off. Jack turned up uncharacteristically on time, he had a Heat jersey on over his shirt but he took it off in the car. We gave out hugs as a measure of courtesy but the only one that felt sincere was the one I gave Ellen. We held onto each other for an extra second.

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"I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me." 

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The eulogy started sweet and was joined by a chorus of sniffles, and then it got a little sarcastic and bitter and it all seemed that much more complicated. James didn’t cry, his eyes were dry the whole time, but Ellen said he’s a robot. I guess she knows her brother better than I do but it seemed like a suitable lead to follow. It doesn’t matter how stoic you are at the event or not, because the first time you find yourself awake at 2am and your mental barriers are weak those feelings will get you anyway. We didn’t go to the after bar because Jack had to drive, but we saw the photos on Facebook later and it felt a little tasteless. When he dropped me at my door we made plans for a booze cruise at the end of the week. It’s easier to move forward when you have something to look forward to. 

Track

Stuck Between Stations

Artist

The Hold Steady

Album

Boys And Girls In America

The Hold Steady - “Stuck Between Stations”

In late 2006 I was chatting on AIM (RIP) with a girl from San Francisco who I knew via Twitter or something, and I asked her what she’d been listening to lately. At the time I was going through a punk phase, that never ended so much as it receded, and she was super into all that nasally indie rock shit that apparently everybody in San Francisco was in love with in 2006. Like, Tapes and Tapes, Modest Mouse, Cold War Kids, et al. Not that I didn’t have my dalliance with all that, especially Cold War Kids which I initially hated, but at some point I grew out of good vibes and awkward, fumbling attempts at sex, which is basically all that music is good for. Anyway, she recommended I listen to The Hold Steady along with the aforementioned bands, and that’s where it all started.

Boys & Girls In America is the first Hold Steady album I ever listened to and the first that ever really clicked with me. Though it’s less mythological than Separation Sunday in that it moves away from the tragic trio, this gives it the benefit of being more simply universal. While you can tie some of the narrative perspectives to either of the characters - one of the lines on “Stuck Between Stations” is “words won’t save your life,” which is very similar to Holly saying “words alone won’t save you” on a track definitely about her - that they’re barely mentioned by name gives the record a wider point of entry for those seeking to relate. That said, they’re not totally absent; “First Night” reflects on where they all currently are, with Holly in the hospital not far from the bar in “Barfruit Blues”, regretting her decline and that she “can’t get as high as we got on that first night.” “Party Pit” is sort of her farewell song and also contains one of the greatest refrains in The Hold Steady discography: “Gonna walk around and drink some more.”

In this article which explores the religious themes present in Finn’s music, the author asks Finn which song best encapsulates the message he’s trying to convey with his lyrics, to which he answers “Citrus”. It isn’t the quintessential Hold Steady song, but the delicate acoustic guitar accompanied by Finn’s soft singing reveals the versatility of The Hold Steady as musicians. It’s a beautiful moment of pause among the heavier electric riffs and drum bashing, and makes the following track about a spontaneous romance between two kids who overdosed at a festival stand out that much more.

To introduce somebody to The Hold Steady I would reach straight for Boys & Girls In America. Though it lacks some of the punchier moments that Separation Sunday is full of, it provides such a refined distillation of everything which make them an incredible band. From the bar room romanticism and exuberant love to the pianos and the gutsy licks, it has everything you need to tell if you can still be friends with someone who’s never heard of the band before. Plus it has their best b-side, but more on that later.