The Lazy Friday Mix: Opening Tracks

You guys, I’m so lazy this Lazy Friday that I can’t even be bothered to listen past the first track of any given album. Obviously, my only option is to compose a Lazy Friday Mix of awesome opening tracks.

Starting with the opening track to what is still my favorite album ever. Of course, I’m talking about “London Calling” by the Clash. Listen to that bass line! Hear Joe Strummer’s howls! Try to figure out what “zombies of death are!” Look, the point is that “London Calling” opens London Calling – the best album ever – with the kind of gallows humor (“I have no fear/ ’cause London is drowning and I/ I live by the river!”) and genre-melding awesomeness that earned the Clash, for a time, the distinction of being “the only band that matters.”

From my favorite album ever, lets look at an opening track from my favorite band working right now. I’m speaking, as I very often do on Bollocks!, about the Hold fucking Steady. Specifically,  I’m speaking about “Constructive Summer,” the song that opens Stay Positive.  The thing I love about the Hold Steady is this: when they set out to write a summer anthem, a sing-along song, they don’t rest until they’ve come up with something like “Constructive Summer” (in which Craig Finn sings, “Our psalms are sing-along songs”), which is my absolute favorite Hold Steady song. Why? Because it opens with a massive, simple-yet-elegant guitar riff and in just under three minutes, it tells you everything you need to know about the Hold Steady as a band. It pays the best tribute to Joe Strummer I have ever heard in song form – “Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/ I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” (someone will probably suggest that Cowboy Mouth song about Joe Strummer, but they should suggest it elsewhere. Dumping a girl because she’s never heard of Joe Strummer is fucking stupid. Sorry, but it is). And because it ends with something that I think is 100% true: “We are our only saviors.”

Recently inducted Bollocks! contributor Zac, or “Plan Z,” as he is sometimes known, had this suggestion for my list of great opening tracks, and I’m hard put to disagree with him: “Zac here. I never could, and still don’t, understand the application of the label “stoner rock” for Queens of the Stone Age. They named their previous band after a D&D monster, for fuck’s sake. I don’t know who you were playing D&D with in high school, but my dungeon master was most assuredly not carving pipes out of oversized d20s. I understand the stoner label didn’t sit too well with Josh Homme & co., either, which is why 2000’s Rated R opens with the hilariously rad “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” a song that woke up one morning, said “fuck this noise,” went downtown straightaway to empty its accounts at the Subtlety and Understatement Savings & Loan, and blew it all in a ridiculous rock n’ roll orgy of irony and awesomeness. C-c-c-c-c-co-caaaaaaaaaaine!”

Just now, just this very second, I was chatting with new contributor Justin (who has the distinction of being the first person to use the phrase “cum dumpster” in a Bollocks! post) and recommending him some music to get him through his Friday. I mentioned that he could be listening to Doolittle by the Pixies and then I remembered how totally fucking awesome “Debaser” is as an opening track. It’s a pop song gone totally off its nut (being “debased,” as it were), inspired – at least in part – by the Salvador Dali/Luis Buñuel flick Un Chien Andalou. There’s nothing more to say about this song. Just click the link and listen to it!

While I wait and wait and wait for Santi White (now Santigold) to release a follow-up to Santogold, I am reminded of how wonderfully she kicked off her debut album. It was with a song called “L.E.S. Artistes,” which showcases White’s considerable talent for writing a catchy-as-fuck chorus. Although I don’t really know what’s going on in the video.

Speaking of catchy as fuck, I think that phrase very accurately describes It’s Blitz, the last Yeah Yeah Yeahs record (which came out all the way back in 2009. I think it’s time for a new record, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. What do you think?). That album opens with a dancey number called “Zero.” About halfway through the song, I realize that I don’t know or care what it’s about. The persistent beat and Karen O’s out-fucking-standing vocals take me to a place where all I wanna do is jump around like an idiot (which I guess is to say they take me to a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert).

Let’s head back to the 1990s for a few minutes, shall we? Back before he went totally batshit, Billy Corgan was in a band called Smashing Pumpkins, whose best album by far is called Siamese Dream. That album opens with “Cherub Rock,” a song that is most adequately described as “massive” (I’d link to the video on YouTube, but EMI, being the horrible cunts that they are, has decided to block the video in the U.S.). That guitar riff is burned into the bones of everyone who was struggling through adolescence in the 1990s and it has stood the test of time. Never read anything Billy Corgan says on the internet, but by all means listen to Siamese Dream.

Continuing in the Nineties, we turn our attention to a little-known band from Seattle called…well, I forget what they were called. Whatever. Never mind. Anyway, this band whose name I forget had an album called Nevermind that opened with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that happily borrows its dynamics from the Pixies. Twenty years after its release, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still rocks. It’s a shame nothing big ever happened with this band because they were pretty good.

I can never find enough excuses to link to the video for “Moves” by the New Pornographers. It opens last year’s Together, a powerful, popful (but not power-popful) wonder of a record. The video is entertaining, but the refrain of “These things get louder,” is one of my favorites from last year. And there’s an electric fucking cello! Electric. Fucking. Cello. Enough said.

In closing, though, I wanna tell you about what might be the best opening track ever. That’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones.  It opens their first album and if you listen to it once on this glorious Friday, you will listen to it one thousand times. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!

Okay. I need lunch. May all your Fridays be lazy and all your Saturdays be largely hangover-free.


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.

Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

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.

We Are Our Only Saviors

Over the course of their career, The Hold Steady have been given half-assed titles like, “America’s best bar band,” or “America’s best party band,” or whatever. But let’s not mince words, kids (instead, mince some garlic, toss it in a bowl with some chili powder and black pepper. Your tuna steaks should’ve been soaking in tequila and lime juice for a few hours; go ahead and dip them in the dry mixture and then pan fry on medium heat until the tuna flakes easily with a fork. Serve over a salad of black beans, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and avocado. Goes down nicely with a cold pale ale): The Hold Steady are the best rock band there is right now. Bar none. You can have your Chemical Romances and your Panics at the Disco, you can sell your organs on the black market to get Rolling Stones tickets (“Sure, I’ll pay four months’ rent to see corpses on stage! They’re legendary corpses!”), you can get high enough to dream that 1)Axl Rose will ever actually release Chinese Democracy and 2) it will be any kind of listenable, but you’d be throwing shit at a wall and waiting for it to stick. The Hold Steady are the real deal.

Consider: Stay Positive was supposed to drop July 15th. Sometime in June, it got leaked to the internet (like everything eventually does), and what did the band do? Did they throw a Metallica-style fit and make asinine claims about how they don’t make music for their fans? No. They put the whole fucking album up on their MySpace page, put the album out early on iTunes (youTunes, actually; I don’t), and then slapped three bonus tracks on the hard release, not least of which is “Ask Her for Adderall.” Because, as Mr. Finn says on “Stay Positive”: “We couldn’t even have done this if it wasn’t for you”. I’ve seen these dudes live three times and every time, they say thanks to us, the little folks, for giving them the coolest job in the world. The Hold Steady doesn’t have time for websites about how they saved your life – they’re too busy kicking your ass with the best rock music available anywhere.

From Almost Killed Me to Stay Positive, The Hold Steady have bested themselves, tightened their sound, added more instrumental flourishes, et cetera. The time was gonna come when Craig Finn was gonna have to learn to sing or destroy his voice (which should be listed as “baritone sax” on their first 3 records). So he took some voice lessons between Boys and Girls In America and the new album. The band is tighter than ever (Tad Kubler may be our last true guitar hero) and they’ve added some nice textures (horns on “Sequestered in Memphis”, a harpsichord on “One for the Cutters,” and J. Mascis playing banjo on “Both Crosses”) to back up Finn’s working-class poetry.  Stay Positive opens with my new obsession, “Constructive Summer,” which continues the Hold Steady’s tradition of opening the fuck out of an album and ups the ante considerably with lines like “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer/ I think he might have been our only decent teacher/getting older makes it harder to remember/ we are our only saviors/ we’re gonna build something this summer.” It’s a blue-collar anthem (“me and my friends are like/ the drums on ‘Lust for Life’/ we pound it out on floor toms/ our psalms are sing-along songs”) that eats the lunch of every Springsteen song ever. I cannot listen to Stay Positive without listening to “Constructive Summer” twice every single time.

I could bore you with the track by track, but you already know I fucking love this record. It turns all of The Hold Steady’s previous tricks up to 11 – sing-along choruses, big guitar riffs, pounding drums, and Craig Finn’s raspy-assed poetry on every track. Stay Positive features, I think, some of Finn’s best writing. Take “One for the Cutters,” for instance: a sprawling epic (for a Hold Steady song) about the dangers of partying with townies, Finn pencils in every detail with verve (“one drop of blood on immaculate Keds,” is a line worthy of Tom Waits). There’s humor and hope and hopelessness all bound up in the 14 songs that make up Stay Positive. Finn is also one of a handful of songwriters who can use religious imagery without being a cloying, pretentious twat. “I met your savior/ I knelt at his feet/ he took my ten bucks/ and he went down the street” (from “Constructive Summer” – see? it’s fucking awesome!). On “Lord I’m Discouraged,” Finn talks about praying that his junkie girlfriend doesn’t die, but he’s getting the feeling that maybe no one’s hearing the prayer because she keeps “coming up with/ excuses and half-truths/ and fortified wine”. “Both Crosses” details the crucifixion of Jeebus through a woman’s visions – “she saw the footage right before it got cut.” “Both Crosses” describes the violence of crucifixion, the exploitation that followed (“Baby, that’s how we get energized”), and humanizes a story that some folks tend to see in very starry-eyed terms. Jesus, if he was a real dude, suffered a horrible death (on a day some people actually refer to as “Good Friday” without a trace of irony) – as did many other folks at the time (the Romans were big on crucifixion). If the story won’t save you, what will? Finn suggests that you have to save yourself, but he has also suggested, since the band’s inception on Almost Killed Me,  that rock ‘n’ roll can help.

All in all, Stay Positive is a love letter to rock music and to The Hold Steady’s fans – like all Hold Steady albums, it’s a great disc to crank up while you’re driving anywhere with the windows down during the summer. Or when you’re having friends over for a beer or five. In any case, it’s The Hold Steady’s best album yet and a true rock accomplishment in an age of emo and pop-punk posers. If someone is going to release a better rock album than Stay Positive, they’d better get to work – the gauntlet has been thrown down by The Hold Steady. While Craig Finn and company are raising a toast to St. Joe Strummer, they can rest assured that somewhere, perhaps from a corner booth at The Afterlife Bar & Grill, he’s raising a pint right back at them.