FOREWORD: After this ’04 piece, promoting Hold Steady’s sturdy debut, Almost Killed Me, Craig Finn’s Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis troupe became all the rage amongst underground pundits. I wanted to do an article on them for High Times, seeing that Finn is such an ardent pro-marijuana advocate, but got denied permission. Since then, Hold Steady increased their fan base with excellent follow-ups such as ‘05s pharmacologically conscientious, Separation Sunday, ‘06s exhilaratingly loyalist, Boys And Girls In America, and ‘08s broadened prospectus, Stay Positive. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Singer-guitarist Craig Finn tries to keep it real compared to what used to be before disco and punk exploded around 1977. Along with former Lifter Puller pal Tad Kubler, the Minnesota native originally assembled the Hold Steady on a whim to play vintage hard rock instrumental snippets for a New York improv comedy troupe. Now married and living in the Big Apple, Finn left behind his frigid Gopher State confines to explore “the big glamorous city” he had always fantasized, finding full-time work for a digital distribution company coding music.
After attending suburban Catholic institute Boston College in the ‘80s, an educational facility neighboring his Beantown birthplace, Finn returned to Minneapolis, finding comfort following the same respected underground bands he loved as a confused adolescent: the Replacements and Husker Du.
“I was into hardcore and punk. I went to many exceptional local concert events that would affect my future endeavors. There was definitely a lot of pride in that area,” he recalls. “There was a lot of personal stuff to deal with when I went to high school. But it was a cool time to grow up in and seemed like a logical place to base my songs.”
Though Lifter Puller maintained artier aspirations and barely gained a foothold beyond the wintry Land of 10,000 Lakes, the Hold Steady proved to be more approachable, straightforward, and thankfully, just as intense, establishing a truly mesmerized nationwide audience. Lifter Puller, over the course of three increasingly illuminating albums, reached their zenith on ‘00s garrulous Fiestas Fiascos, an utterly profound manifesto digesting an oddball cornucopia of mangy drug-fueled characters that’d appreciably inspire impending ventures peering into the soiled subterranean deluge shrouding mind-fucked gangsters, shady ladies, and liquored-up lowlifes.
Finn confesses, “Fiestas Fiascos was so much better than the others. The first one especially, where we made a generic indie rock record too soon. But the more we played together, a certain stylistic efficiency developed.”
Settling in New York City, Finn reconvened with fellow guitarist Kubler, plus bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake, to deliver the Hold Steady’s ruggedly impulsive zeitgeist, Almost Killed Me, an ambitious tour de force these humble Midwesterners never envisioned as the colossal breakthrough it’d quickly become. Immediately, the keen ’04 debut received gushing mainstream press glorifying its frankly detailed barfly portrayals.
Finn’s piercingly reflective narratives, verbose road tales, and seedy urban blueprints toiled as stark American travelogues capriciously intersecting arena rock bombast, punk-addled belligerence, and prog-rock elocution. His charismatic resplendence recaptured the unbound recklessness, party hearty revelry, and delinquent tenacity of the ‘70s Me Decade. Gladly acknowledging Bruce Springsteen’s extensive impact, he concocted heartwarming recollections and eminently quotable lines to don feverishly intuitive novellas.
Almost Killed Me’s vexing opening salvo, “Positive Jam,” offers cocksure determination in the face of perilously indignant domestic memoirs, serving as a semi-sarcastic revisionist history lesson descriptively reconciling the ravaged war-torn greed-impeded savagery abrasively blanketing the otherwise vanguard United States during the industrious 20th century. Moving into the present, Finn showers down sociopolitical acerbity on the existent amphetamine dilemma “Knuckles,” daringly tackling the harsh issue of chemical dependency facing modern post-teen rebels with snickering cynical jargon: ‘I been trying to get people to call me Freddie Mercury, but they keep calling me Drop Dead Fred.’
“There’s some defiant double entendre going on there. Crystal meth has ravaged Middle America. When Lifter Puller played Iowa shows, it was scary how wide the problem had become,” Finn explains.
Elsewhere, hard rocking derision “The Swish” amplifies disingenuous Beverly Hills decadence. Smirked barroom memento ‘Barefruit Blues” beseechingly bellows ‘half the crowd’s calling out for “Born To Run”/ the other half… “Born To Lose”/ maybe we were born to choose.’ And pithy piano underscores the railing guitar workout “Certain Songs,” highlighted by an expressive lyrical excursion insinuating Greetings From Asbury Park.
The inceptive schematic plot, a vital stab at appeasing ‘70s-assuaged neuroticism, gets convincingly consummated on ‘05s superior Separation Sunday. Surpassing the sparer predecessor by introducing a veritable boon of intriguingly deranged caricatures with deeper newfangled personality crises, the Hold Steady’s bittersweet emotional anecdotes steadfastly refuse dilution. Beginning with the growled vestige “Hornets! Hornets!,” these recoiling ambassadors of archetypal classic rock display a contagious enthusiasm name-checking displaced vagabonds and transitory locales.
Despite its glaringly reverential title, the pining ‘seventeen forever’ remembrance, “Stevie Nix,” only offhandedly references the vampish Fleetwood Mac singer, whose surname is resolutely misspelled. But the anecdotal twists therein depicted provoke a forlorn solicitude romanticism ever so closely related to Springsteen’s kaleidoscopic “Rosalita” rap strewn across pounding piano runs and a stammered guitar beat forebodingly retrieved from The Who’s stinging inquiry “The Seeker.” Incidentally, the elongated folk-rap passage “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” melds the same hyperbolic exhilaration atop chilly organ rejuvenation, utilizing the carnival-esque buildup Meatloaf borrowed from The Boss for hyperbolic exhortation “You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth.” Astonishingly industrious boogie rumble “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” places jukin’ guitars above flashy horn blurts while the penetratingly sturdy “Banging Camp” resurrects Thin Lizzy’s celebratory sonic guitar clusters. Straggling adrift trekking the continent ‘high as hell,’ the compelling “Multitude Of Casualties” ultimately proffers rebirth.
Finn explains, “Most of my songs come from altered composite sketches meshed together. That’s a vision quest about a young girl who leaves an unspecified big city, travels the country with a guy as a troubled youth, then disappears. When she comes back, she’s born again.”
When told that the Hold Steady’s story songs also invigorate comparisons to a northern version of Drive-By Truckers sagaciously fulsome chronicles, Finn’s eyes light up.
“I’m amazed by Drive-By Truckers. Their album, Southern Rock Opera, took me back to a pre-internet time when bands had a mystique,” Finn opines. “When Led Zeppelin would come out with a new album, nobody had a clue what it’d sound like ahead of time. There were no press clippings or informative interviews given beforehand. I had to try to figure out what REM’s Fables of the Deconstructive was about on my own. Nowadays, there’s always a pre-release buzz since artists have websites.”