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By Loren Green
Craig Finn is full of shit. Last June, after the late, great hometown post-punks Lifter Puller reunited at the Triple Rock, I wandered around the venue and passed Finn, the band's singer, guitarist, and songwriter. He and bandmate Tad Kubler had moved to New York a couple of years before, and amid the beery bonhomie that accompanied their reunion--Twin Cities fans reacquainted themselves with an almost equal number of expats who'd come home for the concerts--Finn was telling someone about his and Kubler's new band, the Hold Steady. "Oh, it's just a bar band," Finn said modestly. It was all I could do not to intercede. "No," I wanted to tell Finn's friend. "They are not a bar band. You're only really a bar band if the bar is the only place you're going."
Or maybe it's just that bar bands are rarely this self-aware: The opening track of The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss) climaxes with Finn triumphantly announcing, "I got bored when I didn't have a band/So I started a band, man/We're gonna start it off with a positive jam/The Hold Steady." That's cute, but the road to Foghat is paved with misguided intentions, not least among them the self-referential anthem. And if Finn, who's never been shy about throwing his band's name into his lyrics, ends up releasing live double albums with titles like Rockin' the Triple Rock!!, well, we can't say we weren't warned.
You can't blame the guy for reveling, though. The Hold Steady supply an up-front guitar crunch that plods more than Lifter Puller but comes across more fully and powerfully on record--it's metal to LP's punk, and punk to its new wave. (Kubler plays guitar here, as he did with Song of Zarathustra, rather than bass, his LP instrument. He and Finn are joined by bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Judd Counsell, both of the late band Punchdrunk.) When "Barfruit Blues" finds Finn singing, "She said, 'It's good to see you back in a bar band, baby'/I said, 'It's great to see you're still in the bars'," his tone is as gruff as the music's lumbering stomp, but he also sounds tickled. Still, if a bar band is background entertainment for a night of sloshing PBR, the Hold Steady doesn't qualify--they're there to hold your attention.
The Hold Steady's heavy sound comes from a brief gig covering classic-rock songs between comedy skits by the Brooklyn troupe Mr. Ass. Counsell bashes harder and straighter than LP skinsman Dan Monick, while Kubler solos all over the place to scattershot effect. Finn has said that the band's back-to-basics approach was partly inspired by seeing the musicians in Martin Scorsese's 1978 concert film The Last Waltz interact with minimum frills (if you don't count Van Morrison's ill-advised purple jumpsuit or the now-airbrushed-out mound of cocaine under Neil Young's nose). The Hold Steady, he stresses, is concept-free. But Finn is a conceptualist by nature, obsessed with words and ideas and creating characters (such as Lifter Puller standbys the Eye-Patch Guy and Katrina) in specific settings (fictional nightclub the Nice-Nice, 15th and Franklin, the Nassau Coliseum). If anything, the Hold Steady are only a bar band in the sense that most of their songs take place in bars. Which means Lifter Puller was a bar band, too.
In a sense, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me picks up right where Lifter Puller's 2000 swan song, Fiestas + Fiascos, left off. Not right where it left off, of course--if Finn knows whether the Eyepatch Guy's call for Nightclub Dwight's head on a platter was ever executed, he's not telling. But the terrain of Almost Killed Me is more than familiar to longtime LP fans: lotsa drugs, lotsa parties, lotsa bad behavior, lotsa characters, lotsa one-liners. "My name is Corey," one hapless fellow says in "Hostile, Mass." "I'm really into hardcore/People call me Hard Corey." Then he twists the caricature into something more empathetic: "Don't you hate these clever people and all these clever-people parties?"
Finn certainly seems to. In several interviews, including one I conducted last summer, he's expressed a vocal distaste for both the electroclash scene that was overrunning Brooklyn when the band formed, and for what the singer has termed "dress-up garage rock"--the White Stripes, the Hives, and their seemingly gimmicky fashionableness. Though Finn hasn't exactly turned into Dennis Miller, there's more than a hint of the cultural reactionary in such statements. I'd worry about this if it pervaded Almost Killed Me more than it does; Finn usually limits his gripes to some swipes at '80s revivalism, most notably in "The Swish": "I've survived the '80s one time already/And I don't recall them all that fondly." Then again, that statement is probably apt for a former hardcore kid. For Finn, the '80s were a paradoxical era, both the time of that music's peak and the era that became everything hardcore was against: garish impracticality, phony gloss, government corruption candied into national lullaby, and the worst record production in the history of the human eardrum.
Production was always a sticking point for a lot of Lifter Puller fans--and non-fans. The albums didn't do the band's live show justice, the charge went, and although I've always thought those LP records sounded fine, I can't deny that the Hold Steady's album comes far closer to capturing the band's live roar. Still, one thing that made Lifter Puller great was the way its dynamics--the tinny keyboard hooks dancing atop guttural guitar glower, Monick's just-behind-the-beat cymbal smashes--stretched past the music's seeming straightforwardness. You could see it best onstage: Finn's hands going apeshit, Kubler nearly breaking his hands on his instrument, guitarist/keyboardist Steve Barone as the one-man sideshow that would later flourish in the Hawaii Show.
Live, the Hold Steady are less of a whirlwind, but Finn's songwriting hasn't gone anywhere. If anything, it's more focused, a hair less prone to word repetition for its own sake--though with Finn, the repetition always serves a rhythmic end if not a narrative one. And the tension between the band's traditional approach and Finn's widescreen vision makes Almost Killed Me the year's first great rock album. Not bad for a (cough cough) bar band.
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