The Holdy Steady
The Hold Steady
Craig Finn isn't a singer. His voice is a harsh, nasal, confused, emphatic bleat, clamping down on certain words and rolling tricky internal rhymes around in his mouth until they come out all broken. He sounds more like the sketchy drunk guy yelling in your ear at a show, asking if you know where to buy drugs, than like the frontman of the band onstage. Finn's voice may be difficult, but don't let it be a deal-breaker.
Finn may not be Art Garfunkel up in this piece, but he uses his adenoidal rasp to blurt twisted, dense shards of squalid back-alley imagery and bruised druggy lamentations, broken teeth and broken bottles, and tattered hotel-room Bibles and hidden knives. He's the poet laureate of the loading dock behind the mall where the runaway kids get together to sniff cheap coke at 5 a.m.
The Hold Steady's first album, last year's ...Almost Killed Me, was a tangled mess of damaged character sketches and triumphant bar-rock thump-- Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle reimagined as an epic of Russian literature. But Separation Sunday is something more, the elegiac Biblical lost-innocence junkie odyssey that Denis Johnson never wrote.
Like Fiestas & Fiascos, the final album from Finn's former Minneapolis post-punk band Lifter Puller, it's an album-length story that forces us to pull bits of narrative from Finn's tangles of words. In Separation Sunday, a confused Catholic girl named Hallelujah hooks up with a motley assortment of shady characters, does a gang of drugs, gets born again when some guy with a nitrous tank dunks her in a river, wakes up in a confession booth, and maybe dies and maybe comes back from death. But the real story is in Finn's virtuoso evocations of menace ("When they say great white sharks/ They mean the kind in big black cars/ When they say killer whales/ They mean they whaled on him till they killed him up in Penetration Park"), hedonism ("You came into the ER drinking gin from a jam jar/ And the nurse is making jokes about the ER being like an after-bar"), and brief shining moments of lucidity ("Youth services always find a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed-up teenage life").
None of this would work if Finn didn't have an expert rock band backing him up. Finn's songs wheel precariously from one unhinged lyrical idea to the next, almost never stopping for choruses or going out of their way to fit into any sort of structure, but the band plays these songs like long-lost fist-in-the-air classic rock anthems. It's well-schooled in every bar-rock cliché, and executes these moves with joy and conviction: the pick-slide before the climax, the weeping Hammond organ on the bridge, the pregnant pause before the big riff kicks back in. Since ...Almost Killed Me, the band has beefed up its sound with the help of Rocket From the Crypt producer Dave Gardner and keyboard player Franz Nickolay, and its Meat Loaf pianos, greasy George Thorogood blooz choogle, and wheedling Journey guitar carry more heft and authority than they had on the last album. This stuff would sound great behind just about any garage-rock hack, but it turns Finn's dirtbag chronicles into something epic and huge and molten and beautiful.
-Tom Breihan, May 5, 2005