The Hold Steady

      The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me (French Kiss, 2004)
      Separation Sunday (French Kiss, 2005)
     The Virgin Digital Sessions (French Kiss, 2006)
     Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant, 2006)
    Live at Fingerprints (Vagrant, 2007)
      Stay Positive (Vagrant, 2008)
     A Positive Rage (Vagrant, 2008)

Lifter Puller

   Lifter Puller (Skeene, 1997)
     Half Dead and Dynamite (The Orchard, 1997)
     Fiestas and Fiascos (The Orchard, 2000)
      Soft Rock (The Orchard, 2002)

When the Hold Steady began making noise, Craig Finn and Tad Kubler were already in their Thirties, a couple of Minnesota dudes who relocated to Brooklyn after bombing out with their first band, Lifter Puller. As the Hold Steady, they bashed out Seventies bar-band riffs, while Finn spluttered his wild tales of teen punks, Jesus freaks, party girls, hard drugs and Catholic angst. Naturally, they figured it was all just for kicks. But to their surprise, and everyone else's, people out there were starved for a band like this. The Hold Steady dropped four all-time rock & roll classics in the next five years, with a Springsteen-style knack for storytelling. If "Killer Parties" was "The Promised Land" without a promise or land, "You Can Make Him Like You" was "Candy's Room" without candy or a room.

The low-budget debut Almost Killed Me overflows with guitar raunch and motormouth poetry, chronicling a cast of lost kids who bounce from song to song, zonked on sex and drugs and religion in the Midwestern badlands. Finn's one-liners range from "Mary got a bloody nose from sniffing margarita mix" to "I did a couple favors for these guys that looked like Tusken Raiders." The guys mourn the death of the Nineties rock dream, even if that just comes down to killer parties they can't remember. But the music is loaded with friendly wit and compassion — even in "Barfruit Blues," when his ex says, "It's good to see you're back in a bar band, baby," Finn just replies, "Well, it's great to see you're still in the bars." It all ends with "Killer Parties," an epic full of wiseass guitars and stupid sentimental drums, as Finn dreams of a unified scene in a world that could never run out of small-town bohemians or places for them to belong.

They had no reason to think anyone would pay attention — but Almost Killed Me made the Hold Steady a word-of-mouth sensation. The band celebrated with the seven-inch "Milkcrate Mosh," plus a cheerfully inept Zep cover ("Hey Hey What Can I Do") on the flip side. For some reason, the Australian edition of Almost Killed Me is the only one to include the essential "Curves and Nerves," along with other choice nuggets.

Almost Killed Me sounded like a perfect one-shot, yet these guys were just getting started. Separation Sunday was their version of a classic rock opera, telling the story of a Catholic girl named Holly (short for Hallelujah) who gets caught up in sex and drugs, gets born again at the 5:30 folk mass, falls apart, but walks on back. Tad Kubler and new keyboardist Franz Nicolay play Killebrew-size riffs as Finn sings about sin ("Tramps like us and we like tramps") and salvation ("She crashed into the Easter Mass /With her hair done up in broken glass"). Finn nails his tone of homesick blues — homesick like he remembers home, and homesick like he left because he was sick of it. It's like Sherwood Anderson's classic novel Winesburg, Ohio as recollected in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Separation Sunday stunned everyone; even their hardcore fans didn't think they had a masterpiece like this in them.

Boys and Girls in America tends to be either your favorite or least-favorite Hold Steady album. It's the one where they went for a more conventional rock-radio sound, with choruses, melodies, not much guitar, and botched synth-heavy production. But the songs stick anyway, especially "Stuck Between Stations," "Chips Ahoy," and "You Can Make Him Like You," a sad rocker about a girl who lets her boyfriend deal with the dealers, until she starts wanting to get high alone. Stay Positive is a darker and weirder version, especially if you include the essential B-sides "Cheyenne Summer" (an audaciously pretty country-rock ballad) and "Ask Her For Adderall" (more songs about girls on drugs). "Constructive Summer" and "Stay Positive" were punk anthems, while "Sequestered In Memphis" had two desperate drunks tangling over a deceptively laid-back swirl of piano and horns. A Positive Rage documents a typical show in Chicago, giving a taste of the boozy, sweaty camaraderie that earned their reputation as the most crowd-flattening live band around. Live at Fingerprints is decent but the superior Virgin Digital Sessions has the acoustic gem "212-MARGARITA," about a temptress who calls herself Margarita "because I'm green and misleading and I've had too much tequila." Franz Nicolay's excellent solo records are deranged Euro-style cabaret accordion — start with 2009's Major General.

After the Hold Steady blew up, people outside the 612 area code finally started giving a crap about Lifter Puller, Finn and Kubler's 1990s band. It turns out they were really as great as your Minnesota friends claimed — even wordier than the Hold Steady, with new wave keyboard blurts and local-color tales of shady characters like the Eyepatch Guy. Start with "Secret Santa Cruz" ("Her name was Sally but they called her Sal Mineo / She was lit up like an arson but she burned out like Arsenio"), "Space Humping $19.99," or the grandiose epic "Nassau Coliseum." Finn wails about a famous real-life Grateful Dead show on Long Island that turned into a cop riot, but all the violence just sets him off ranting about that ex-girlfriend he can't get over. One of his mightiest songs ever, and essential for any Hold Steady fan.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004)

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