When Lifter Puller took the stage for Saturday's reunion set at D4th of July in front of about 1,000 people, it was their first time playing together in 12 years. That's twice as long as the band existed, and by my guess, at least half the crowd had never seen them live. I don't envy the challenge Craig Finn, Steve Barone, Tad Kubler, and Dan Monick faced leading up to their unannounced (but much gossiped-about) set. In their heyday, they produced three albums, an EP, and numerous singles, with much of their most creative output coming between 1997 and their 2000 breakup. How to best distill that history into a (probably) once-in-a-lifetime 30-minute show?
While the band acquitted themselves admirably, showcasing some of their finest material, I couldn't help but feel sorry for everyone in the crowd, from the grey hairs like me who saw them in the Entry in the '90s to the kids who only know them through records, history, and the bands they've been in since. No matter how good their set was, dammit, there were songs I wanted to see live one more time, and 30 minutes simply wasn't enough time to play them all.
So, for everyone in attendance, whether you were at their first show ever or had never heard them before, here's 10 songs in no particular order that (in an ideal world where we can bend the rules of space and time without the aid of all those drugs in all those Lifter Puller songs) we should have also gotten to hear:
1. "Plymouth Rock"
The Lifter Puller discography blends catchy, repeated, and re-referenced individual lines with a sprawling mythology and a cast of sordid characters too numerous to count. And the one-minute-long "Plymouth Rock" and its opening line, “She says it's great getting high / She says it's lame to get fried,” is about as close to a distillation of Finn's creative obsession with cautionary tales of kids walking a fine edge as anything Lifter Puller's produced. It might not be a thesis statement, but "Plymouth Rock" is as good an opening hook as you can get.
2."Touch My Stuff"
3. "Lie Down On Landsdowne"
4. "Lifter Puller Vs. The End of The Evening"
Pound for pound, the last third of 2000's Fiestas and Fiascos might constitute the finest sequence of songs Lifter Puller put together. There were better individual songs, sure, but from the first drum beat of “Touch,” there's no stopping until the last distorted synth-squelch of the album's musical and narrative closer, “The Flex and The Buff Result.” Live, the ascending keyboards, driving drum beat, and multiple breakdowns of “Touch” and “Landsdowne”'s more mid-tempo rock with its pop-hook chorus bassline are best suited to a high-energy set. While “Flex” is maybe too drum-sample and effects heavy to put together for a reunion, who wouldn't want to see the slow burn of “Vs.” build to 1,000 people all shouting “crank up your amps, man!” and “we can always get some 3.2” at the top of their lungs?
5. "Math is Money"
I suspect if there had been any way to arrange yet another special guest to perform at a show so overloaded that it was about to capsize, Lifter Puller would have played this one, which features Atmosphere's Slug on backing vocals. Noisy, chaotic, rooted in an off-kilter breakbeat that stands out as a showcase for Kubler and Monick's bass and drum skills, “Math” was a crowd-pleaser in the latter days of Lifter Puller, all the way down to the repeated refrain of “Twin Cites / They're double teaming me / Twin Cities/ They're ganging up on me.”
6. "The Gin & Sour Defeat"
7. "Sherman City"
These two songs from Half Dead and Dynamite seem like polar opposites: “Gin & Sour” is as sonically and lyrically dark as any story Craig Finn's ever told, all hard drugs, death, and paranoia; "Sherman City" is about as close to a power-pop song as Lifter Puller ever wrote. But a closer look shows there's not that much difference in the story told between the two songs. "Gin & Sour"'s darkness is still thick in "Sherman City," but the catchy hooks of the song make it feel more hopeful, more upbeat. It's as if all the crap your average Lifter Puller character gets into easier to handle when you've got someone to share it with, even if the relationship is about drugs and power imbalances. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for that “look just like an otter / When I push you underwater” line.
8. "Double Straps"
9. "Solid Gold Sole"
10. "Mission Viejo"
It's generally considered that the leap from Lifter Puller's debut and Half Dead & Dynamite constitutes a growth far beyond the six-month gap between albums. "Double Straps," "Solid Gold Sole," and "Mission Viejo" (which Craig Finn and Steve Barone performed live at Finn's solo First Ave set earlier in the week), disprove this notion. While clearly more rooted in an early '90s indie-rock sound, featuring thin, low-fi production, and warbly vocals that predate Finn's frazzled shouts, these three songs separate themselves from the rest of the self-titled album as the best examples of where the band was headed, not where they were coming from.
For a number of years, every time Lifter Puller played this insanely catchy song locally, Craig Finn made a point of dedicating it to Dillinger Four bassist/vocalist and Chicago Bears fan Patrick Costello, even though the song is absolutely not about the football team. In honor of D4's birthday, I don't mind referencing jokes that have aged past their prime.
The D'4th set closed with two of Lifter Puller's best slower, moody songs: the epic story-song “Nassau Coliseum” and the ruminative shout-out to the people who inspire their songs, “Let's Get Incredible.” Musically, the slow, contemplative “Lazy Eye” doesn't endure in the same way, but a quick Google search shows that the song's closing lyrics, beginning with “Let this be a testament / To every light bulb filament / That burned itself out before it got turned on” still resonates as much as anything Craig Finn's written since.
See you guys in another 12 years.