Quick question: does the idea of an angry 30-year-old singer shouting his own loose leaf-scrawled lyrics over a Karaoke Night back-up band’s version of “Badlands” sound cool? No, not at all? I sympathize. The more hype I heard about Hold Steady – Craig Finn’s hilariously acerbic talk-singing, Tad Kubler’s monster ’70s rock riffs, the line “They keep calling me Sunny D/ Cus I’m the good stuff kids go for,” on their debut album Almost Killed Me – the more they sounded like the sort of horrible retro experiment that sounds good on record store speakers, until you get home and find out irony doesn’t travel too well. But the Hold Steady is the real deal. So now you know – and knowing is half the battle.
Yes, “G.I. Joe.” Remember those ridiculous public service announcements at the end of the “G.I. Joe” cartoon? I’m sure Craig Finn does. His lyrics are full of pop culture references, subculture-specific iconography and a whole lot of easy Christian girls. On the Hold Steady’s new album, Separation Sunday, certain phrases and characters keep reappearing; “your little hood rat friend,” “born again,” “Penetration
Park,” some hustler/pimp named “Charlemagne,” “Jesus,” and the “Mississippi River.” This leads me to believe Separation Sunday is a concept album; I’m just not sure what the concept is. My guess is that it’s about skater/punks from the Twin Cities (Finn and Kubler’s old stomping grounds) turning into born again
Christians, but having a hard time shedding their sex-and-drugs lifestyle. Not that it matters; Finn is a genius at bringing characters and places alive even if we don’t exactly who is who and where they might be.
The world of Separation Sunday is full of skaters, punk rockers, soccer players, sketchy hook-ups with unstable teenage girls, fun with nitrous tanks down by the river, kids whining about “the scene,” and earnest teenage proselytizing. Which means the album is basically a tour of teenage life, or teenage life as seen through the eyes of a bitter, hyper-observant dude in his 30s.
Think of Separation Sunday as Born to Run if instead of car-obsessed greasers and street toughs, Springsteen wrote about Christian punk rockers and stoned suburbanites. Both albums sound desperate, melodramatic, faux-worldly, and angry; one is just more fun than the other. And the reason for that, I believe, is that Born to Run was written before the appearance of punk rock. A lot of Finn’s characters are those same poor, angry kids from Ashbury Park, only now they’ve got punk and skater subcultures that tell them there is nothing wrong with hanging around, screwing up and pissing their lives away. In fact, anything less would be selling out.
But it does seem the kids in Separation Sunday are unhappy with “the scene.” So unhappy, it seems, that they’re turning to Jesus. On the second track, “Cattle and the Creeping Things,” Finn is a confused punk rocker being introduced to the Bible, asking, “don’t all it end up in some Revelation? /With four guys on horses/And violent red visions.” And the almost-reformed punk kids are so confused, one of them even obtains a cross for herself by ripping it off “from a little girl on the subway during a visit to the city.”
Which is both hilarious and sad. The kids from “the scene” are psyched about their newfound faith, but crosses to them are just new versions of their old studs and safety pins.
The only problem with The Hold Steady is Finn’s grating voice. As “Crucifixion Cruise,” the album’s requisite ballad proves, Finn can sing, or at least hit the notes close enough to carry some kind of melody. I don’t really think off-key singing bothers people anymore; the success of countless off-key choruses in hip-hop and R & B songs testifies to this. It’s just that half the time Finn doesn’t sing at all; he just talks a jumble of words.
Mark E. Smith from the Fall does this too, but his band usually gives him a groove that supports such ranting. The Hold Steady plays bar band riffs, all power chords interrupted by organ squeals and guitar solos, which means Finn should at least attempt to sing. In a recent New Yorker article writer Sasha Frere-Jones recounts the chilly reception The Hold Steady received from some members of the crowd when they opened for The Eagles of Death Metal in New York City. This doesn’t surprise me; if I saw The Hold Steady live without hearing their album first, I would think they sucked too.
But I should shut up now; I don’t want to turn anyone away from one of the coolest bands I’ve heard in a long time. The Hold Steady is so smart, so fun and so rockin’ that you shouldn’t let a pesky thing like the singer barely singing ruin the music.