The Hold Steady

TrackAlbum
KnucklesAlmost Killed Me
Chicago Seemed Tired Last NightSeparation Sunday
Stuck Between StationsBoys And Girls In America
Chips AhoyBoys And Girls In America
Chillout TentBoys And Girls In America
Sequestered In MemphisStay Positive
Constructive SummerStay Positive
The WeekendersHeaven Is Whenever
SpinnersTeeth Dreams
Family FarmOpen Door Policy

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The Hold Steady playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Originally hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Hold Steady embodied the post-punk spirit of the city’s legendary Replacements and Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum. But while the band’s guitar-driven edge is comparable, the Hold Steady’s music also owes an unabashed debt to 70s FM-dial arena rock, freed of the slick polish and traditional conventions. The band’s main selling point is frontman Craig Finn, who narrates more than sings, weaving tales of the city’s late-night outcasts. His urban poetry is equal parts Lou Reed and Charles Bukowski, stories populated by characters in spiritual crisis, knee-deep in drugs and drink and depravity but still clinging to some hope for redemption, slices of life rendered lovingly by Finn’s gruff proclamations (reminiscent of Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould scrubbed of the pop sweetness).

The Hold Steady’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, is ferocious and a little rough, the songs more intent on serving as lively backdrops for Finn’s open mic readings than bothering with something as predictable as a discernible chorus. Which is ok, as Finn’s lyrics are endlessly fascinating, while the gale-force guitars keep you from simply burying yourself in the words. And a few times the songs do gel into tunefulness, most notably on the terrific Knuckles, a declaration of purpose for the band joined to an insistent riff: “I’ve been trying to get people to call me Freddy Knuckles. People keep calling me Right Said Fred. It’s hard to keep trying when half your friends are dying. It’s hard to hold steady when half your friends are dead already.” Other highlights: The Swish locks into a riveting groove, while replicating the same lyrical conceit as Knuckles. (Indeed, Finn’s re-use of characters and lyrical motifs across records gives the band’s discography the feel of an interconnected series of well-thumbed paperbacks.); Hostile, Mass. is another one that almost embraces straight rock & roll; while Killer Parties slows things down and adds a little more musical nuance.

2005’s follow-up, Separation Sunday, didn’t stray too far from the debut, but musically the band sounded even better, aided immensely by the addition of full-time keyboardist Franz Nicolay. The piano conjures the sound of the E Street Band, elevating the boys from unusually accomplished bar band to arena-ready rockers. The leap forward is most noticeable on Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night; yeah, it’s still Finn shouting his twisted character studies all the way out to the cheap seats, but tethered to undeniable rock & roll music, even a horn section, like an alternate-universe Bob Seger. Throw in the catchy Banging Camp and epic How A Resurrection Really Feels and you’ve got a record totally unafraid to proclaim a reverence for Born To Run (if that album were about, instead of cars and Jersey nights, a troubled Catholic girl trying to juggle Jesus and heroin).

Still, the first two albums were just a warm-up for 2006’s Boys And Girls In America. It’s not just the band’s finest record by a wide stretch, but one of the definitive albums of the new millennium. Finn is still narrating more than singing, but the album is full of traditional rock songs, actual verses and sing-along choruses and hooks that stick in your head, interwoven with those Roy Bittan-like piano flourishes. Springsteen and Hüsker Dü finally mate, and here’s the glorious love-child. Opener Stuck Between Stations is an anthem for the ages, Finn touting the girl who “was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian; she was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” Equally captivating is Chips Ahoy, a wondrous tale of a girl who uses her psychic powers to win at the track, resulting migraines be damned. “She put $900 on the fifth horse in the sixth race, I think its name is Chips Ahoy. It came in six lengths ahead, we spent the whole next week getting high.”

Boys And Girls is packed with wall-to-wall standouts – shout-along Massive Nights easily earns its title – but I’m loyal to the delirious Chillout Tent – a meet-cute one-nighter between a couple kids who OD at the music festival and hook up at the first aid station. A pair of guest vocalists add actual singing to Finn’s banter, trading lines: “He was kinda cute, we kinda kicked it in the chillout tent. And I never saw that boy again.” “She was pretty cool, we kinda kicked it in the chillout tent. And I never saw that girl again.” Damn straight, I tear up every time I hear it.

 

Boys And Girls set the bar a little high for the band to clear a second time, but 2008’s Stay Positive does its damnedest, elevated by their finest near-pop song, Sequestered In Memphis – a tv movie-of-the-week compressed into 3 minutes of fist-pumping revelry, as our feckless traveling businessman meets the wrong woman and winds up in the interrogation room. “In bar-light, she looked alright; in daylight, she looked desperate. That’s alright, I was desperate too. I’m getting pretty sick of this interview.” As the music cuts out and the band vocalizes the refrain – “Subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis (I went there on business!)” – over nothing but handclaps, you’ve got yourself the perfect rock anthem. Though if it’s rock anthems you’re after, Constructive Summer (another long lost punked-up Springsteen cut) and the title track are right up there as well.

2010’s Heaven Is Whenever felt like the completion of a trilogy of sorts. The band continued its move into more heartland-infused songwriting territory, with Finn increasingly performing as an actual vocalist, John Mellencamp standing in for Mark E. Smith (at least on the less boisterous numbers). There’s even a nifty sequel to Boys And Girls’ Chips Ahoy, stand-out track The Weekenders, with its restrained verses and sing-along choruses revisiting everyone’s favorite clairvoyant horse-race aficionado. The frisky rockers are still there, in tracks like Rock Problems and Soft In The Center, but the album is just as much given over to the ballads. The variety gives the band a more well-rounded sound, but there’s also some repetition setting in by this point (and the departure of pianist Nicolay before the album’s recording is noticeable).

Heaven’s creeping tiredness is a little more palpable on 2014’s Teeth Dreams, which, after a four-year wait (during which time Finn released some solo work), finds the band returning with some new personnel. It’s not at all a bad album; it’s a little more upbeat than much of Heaven (at least until the back end), and Finn remains a reliably unique narrator, but only a few songs really rise to the level of earlier classics (most notably the rousing Spinners and Wait A While).

The band then took an even longer sabbatical, though Finn continued to record solo albums. (And they’re pretty great – essentially stripped-down Hold Steady records, leaning a lot more heavily on rural Americana than arena rock.) A rested and revived Hold Steady eventually returned with 2019’s Thrashing Thru The Passion, followed by 2021’s Open Door Policy. Both are perfectly fine records, abetted by keyboardist Nicolay’s return to the fold, arguably a little more engaging than Teeth Dreams. Latter-day standouts include Thrashing’s Denver Haircut and Entitlement Crew; while Open Door’s Family Farm details a stay at rehab, where “the nurse that they assigned me had Eruption as her ring tone, blasting out through built in speakers like it’s bug spray.”

 

 

The Hold Steady official website

The Hold Steady (Wikipedia)

Craig Finn official website

Franz Nicolay official website

Bandcamp page

Pitchfork reviews

InsideHook 2021 interview

The Hold Steady biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a semi-retired securities lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include Game Theory, The Reivers, The Shazam, Guided by Voices, The Connells, Big Audio Dynamite, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

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