The Hold Steady’s Finest Hour

It’s Friday and I’m still working my way through new albums by Pharoahe Monch and the Strokes (and preparing to run the fucking Warrior Dash tomorrow), so I thought it would be totally awesome to end this week by doing another installment of my new favorite Bollocks! feature.

The Hold Steady is tied with the National for being my favorite band working right now. I’ve mentioned them a million times on this blog and that’s because they make awesome rock music for people who read books and they successfully perpetuate the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a valid form of spiritual practice. So if you gave me one hour to convince you that the Hold Steady is fucking awesome, I would drop the following tracks on you.

“You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” – This song is barely two minutes long but it rides a Tad Kubler riff that I can only describe as fat on a merry jaunt about playing the hand that you’re dealt, no matter how shitty that hand is (“I got stuck with some priss/ who went and sliced up her wrist/ but you know you gotta dance/ with who you came to the dance with”). This song is permanently on my mp3 player’s running mix (helpfully titled “Run, Fucker!”) because it makes me want to run around and rock out.

“Rock Problems” – You should just assume that every song on this list features a guitar riff, played by Tad Kubler (until there are statues of this man in every city, he will be an underrated guitarist), that will climb into your brain and fuck pure joy into your synapses. Because they all do. “Rock Problems” is from last year’s Heaven is Whenever, it’s kind of a sequel to “Most People Are DJs”, and it has a line about listening to Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy and getting “hung up on ‘The People Who Died’,” which is an experience I have had many times myself.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – This was my first favorite Hold Steady song and it opens like this: “Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick/ but after I get sick, I just get sad/ ’cause it burns being broke/ ¬†hurts to be heartbroken/ and always being both must be drag.” I wanna share a story with you about my friend Zac, who gets mentioned a bit around here. He got married a couple months before I did and his bachelor party was at a strip club in Portland. Zac slipped some dollars to the DJ and bought his way into getting a lap dance on stage, to this fucking song. It was, needless to say, a moment of tremendous pride for both of us.

“Most People Are DJs” ends with a guitar solo so awesome that they just had to cut the tape off and go into the next song (I saw them play it live once and they went straight into “Killer Parties”). This is a quintessential early Hold Steady tune (from Almost Killed Me), with its crashing drums and Craig Finn’s self-deprecating, self-referential, and just totally awesome lyrics: “Baby, take off your beret/ everyone’s a critic/ and most people are DJs” (Finn’s delivery of the last word tells you precisely how he feels about DJs). I’m not gonna say that you don’t like the Hold Steady if you don’t like this song, but there’s a strong correlation between believing this song is awesome and liking this band.

“Stuck Between Stations” – The Hold Steady knows how to open an album. “Stuck Between Stations” opens Boys and Girls in America with authority and some of Finn’s finest writing: “There was that night that we thought that 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.”

“Ask Her for Adderall” – A great song that didn’t quite fit on Stay Positive (though it was released as a bonus track for that album and for the live album A Positive Rage), “Ask Her for Adderall” might be the Hold Steady’s catchiest song, which is saying something. Later career voice lessons have really helped Craig Finn and “Adderall” has one of his finest melodies.

“Constructive Summer” is still probably my favorite Hold Steady song. For now. It’s got all the stuff I need in a Hold Steady song – a hard-charging Kubler riff, pounding drums (“like the drums on ‘Lust for Life'”), and the fucking truth: “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (also: “We are our only saviors”).

“Knuckles” – I’m not sure how many Hold Steady fans would put this in their mix if they were only choosing an hour of music by this band, but I fucking love this song, which features a pretty unreliable narrator (“the last guy didn’t die/ I just lied”) who’s just trying to get people to call him Johnny Rotten, but people keep calling him Freddy Fresh. But I do believe that “it’s hard to hold it steady when half your friends are dead already.”

“Girls Like Status” was a bonus track on like the Australian release of Boys and Girls in America, but it’s worth seeking out. The chorus goes, “Guys go for looks/ girls go for status/ there are so many nights/ when this is just how it happens.” But the best line is, “You want the scars/ but you don’t want the war.” I’ve made much of Tad Kubler’s badass guitar playing, but Finn’s lyrics are the best rock lyrics there are. Period.

“Banging Camp” – Separation Sunday was the first Hold Steady record that I owned, and it still has a very special place in my heart. “Banging Camp” follows “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” on the album, making for a one-two punch of epic awesomeness. “If they think you’re a Christian/ then they won’t send in the dogs/ and if they think you’re a Catholic/ then they’ll wanna meet your boss.”

“The Cattle and the Creeping Things.” While we’re on Separation Sunday, this song is a master class in clever references. “I got to the part about the Exodus/ and up to then, I only knew it was a movement of the people” is a Bob Marley reference, for instance. This is why I hate things like Train’s name-checking Mister Mister in that insipid “Hey, Soul Sister” song.

“The Weekenders” is all the things I’ve already said about awesome Hold Steady songs, but it has one of the best endings of any of their songs – “In the end, I’ll bet no one learns a lesson.”

“You Can Make Him Like You” – Sometimes the truth isn’t subtle. “There’s always other boys/ there’s always other boyfriends.” This is kind of an ode to feminine wiles that cautions that “it only gets inconvenient/ when you wanna go home alone.”

“Barfruit Blues” is another early song from Almost Killed Me, which is probably the Hold Steady’s most raw album (though it is still fucking awesome). I mostly just love the end of this song: “We’ve got the last call, bar band, really really really big decision blues/ we were born to bruise.”

“We Can Get Together” might be the sweetest song the Hold Steady has written to date, so much so that my wife and I included it as a slow dance for our wedding reception. And our programs had the phrase, “Heaven is whenever we can get together” on the front. My wedding was mind-blowingly awesome. The sentiment is correct and beautiful and if you think that’s cheesy, I can live with that.

“Yeah Sapphire” is another one of those songs that benefits from Finn learning to sing a bit. The melody is awesome, and that guitar riff is another feather in Tad Kubler’s cap (he’s gonna need a really big cap if I’m gonna keep handing him feathers for playing awesome riffs). I guess you’d call this a “deep cut” from Stay Positive, but it gets stuck in my head all the fucking time. Why is the radio too stupid to play songs like this?

“Stevie Nix” – Craig Finn is a great storyteller and Separation Sunday tells the story of a girl who becomes disillusioned with her local drug scene and disappears for a while (does she die? We don’t know), only to come back and tell the kids how a resurrection really feels. “Stevie Nix” is a plotty piece in the middle of that album, but it proves that a song can be raw and beautiful at the same time. When Finn sings, “Lord, to be 17 forever,” you know he means there’s only one way to do that.

So on the off chance (I hope it’s an off chance, anyway) that your Friday wasn’t quite awesome enough, try these Hold Steady songs on your headphones and let the weekend open up its loving arms to ya.

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Best Albums of My Life #6: Separation Sunday

Anyone who has read more than one post on this blog is certain of two things. 1) I love the Clash and 2) I love the Hold Steady. So it should surprise no one at all that a Hold Steady album would make it onto my list of the 29 Best Albums Released in My Life (a list which was supposed to be completed by the time I turned 30, but better late than never, right?).

Separation Sunday was the very first Hold Steady album I heard. And for those of you who think it was love at first sound, it wasn’t. I thought this Craig Finn fellow might be shouting about something worth hearing, but I wasn’t that interested in finding out. My favorite song upon first listen was “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” (still one of my favorites) and I didn’t really think much of the other ones. I got that the album was trying to tell me a story, but it took me a few months of owning the album (I got it for free – one of the perks of working for the now-defunct Tower Records) to really sit down and try to listen to that story.

Once I did, though, I was duly impressed. Not only was the story of Hallelujah’s disappearance and “resurrection” a compelling listen, but Tad Kubler’s guitars and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards had wormed their way into my brain, creating a boiling soup of classic rock and literature, two things I would not have thought to combine on a regular basis (largely because some of the most offensive Led Zeppelin songs are the ones where you can tell Robert Plant had been getting high and reading Tolkien).

That was 2005 in Boston and now, five freaking years later, I still love this album. I listen to at least one Hold Steady album a week and lately, I’ve been coming back to Separation Sunday a lot. Not just for the mind-blowingly badass guitar work on “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Banging Camp” (I ask you: what kind of world are we living in where people think John Mayer is a great guitar player but only a fistful of lucky souls know and recognize Tad Kubler’s mad skills? Kubler is like¬† a dragon who breathes awesome riffs instead of fire) or the lyrical awesomeness of “The Cattle and the Creeping Things” (“I guess I heard about original sin/ I heard the dudes blamed the chick/ I heard the chick blamed the snake/ I heard they were naked when they got busted/ and I heard things ain’t never been the same since”), but because of the feeling that I get from Separation Sunday. Like the feelings I have toward a lot of albums, I get a very specific feeling from this album.

When I was a supervisor at Tower, I opened the store on Saturday mornings (a good shift – I was off by 6pm and able to go to shows or out drinking with my friends, most of whom worked at the same store), which meant getting to work by 9am. So I was on the train by 8:30. So every Saturday morning, I’d walk through my little Boston suburb and I loved the way the town felt that early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was like the whole city was sleeping off a hangover and I was tiptoeing through the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I’d march from my awesome basement apartment with my headphones on, listening to Separation Sunday more often than not, and sip coffee while I waited for the train. I’d get to work to be greeted by Baby Boomers with too much disposable income waiting to purchase tickets for whatever shitty show was going on sale that day (part of the joy of being a supervisor at Tower, you see, was running the Ticketmaster – or Ticketbastard, as I called it – counter). And when I look back at my time at Tower Records in Harvard Square (best retail job I ever had – among the top five jobs of any kind that I’ve ever had), the whole thing is soundtracked by Separation Sunday.

The album itself tells the story of a girl named Hallelujah (“the kids, they call her ‘Holly'”) who gets strung out on the Twin Cities drug and party scene and disappears for a while, only to crash into an Easter mass some months later (“Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”). She has a junkie boyfriend who cheats on her with her little hoodrat friend (Hallelujah is a hoodrat too, but you don’t find that out until the end of the album), and she finds some junkie revivalists camped on the banks of the Mississippi River who will give you a full-immersion baptism after a hit of nitrous to give you that “high as hell and born again” feeling. Along the way, she has visions of St. Theresa, sings a song to St. Barbara, and gets involved with a sweat-pants clad drug-dealer named Charlemagne (who, like Hallelujah, is a recurring character in many Hold Steady songs). The combination of the story and the hard-charging rock music that propels it serves to solidify Craig Finn’s underlying musical thesis: that you’re as good a savior as you’re likely to get and that, at the end of the day, rock ‘n’ roll is historically the least disappointing religion you can join. Though Separation Sunday depicts a druggie scene in all its puking glory, the album never becomes a morality play about the dangers of drug use. For Finn, drugs are just another self-made obstacle on Holly’s way to her self-made resurrection. Being high isn’t the problem, it’s why you get high that’s the problem (“I’m gonna tell it like a comeback story/ because when we left, we were defeated and depressed/ and when we arrived, we were rippin’ high”).

Finn’s voice is not great – most people know this. But, like Bob Dylan’s voice (yes, I did just make that comparison), Craig Finn’s voice strikes me as uniquely suited to telling the stories he has to tell. The ongoing story of people fucking themselves up and redeeming themselves is not a story to be told in the clean, polished, octave-scaling timber of a Josh Groban; it’s a story meant to be told by a guy who has lived through something. Finn sounds like he’s lived through a war – hell, like he’s sung through a war – and come out the other side. But his voice (and myriad references to early punk, early hardcore, the Bible, and John Berryman) might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people and that’s just fine by me. I can’t say for certain that I’d like the Hold Steady as much if I thought they were for everyone.