"I got bored when I didn't have a band/ So I started a band, man."
First there was Lifter Puller, AKA "Minneapolis cult band Lifter Puller," who broke up in summer 2000 just as their post-Pavement, twisted story-world of rave-era dissolution and wasted youth was finding a wider audience. Craig Finn, Lifter Puller's vocalist and guitarist, and Tad Kubler (LP's bassist, now on lead guitar) moved to Brooklyn and hooked up with fellow Midwest expats Judd Counsell (drums) and Galen Polivka (bass). They're the Hold Steady, their first album is finally out, and it's incredible.
"Baby, take off your beret/ Everyone's a critic and most people are DJ's."
It's tough to explain just what, exactly, the Hold Steady have got goin' on. Essentially, they hotwire Finn's Lifter Puller vocal delivery onto beer-blast classic rock, but that's like saying Guided by Voices add Bob Pollard's spin to some old Who songs a bit of a fucking understatement. Finn's vocals and stage mannerisms stepping back for machine-gun handclaps, hits in the face, mouthing extra words like the voices don't stop when the mic's not there would be enough to get almost any band over, but THIS band rocks like Bad Company and Thin Lizzy and vintage Springsteen. Look out.
"People call me One-Hour Photo/ I got some hazardous chemicals, so drive around to the window."
In almost every Hold Steady song, someone takes something or drinks something,
usually too much of it. (Not even always something you've heard of; a friend
of mine was driven to investigate the line, "Ginger and Jack and four or five
Feminax." It's better not to know.) There's a middle-size-town vibe chasing
that feeling to fight off the boredom, the young bartenders and not-so-young
waitresses and barflies, the same faces you see at every show and every house
party, the scene. It's not just the Midwest, but almost a Walt Whitman embrace
of the whole mess of America, from "Hostile, Mass." to the stoner California
kids. And it teeters on the fine line between the party and the hangover, because
every late night that bleeds into the next morning is maybe actually another
step closer to somewhere you didn't want to be. But it's a blast in the meantime.
"I keep tryin' to get people to call me Sunny D/ 'cause I got the good stuff kids go for."
Since the Hold Steady are a little hard to explain, they can be hard to get into right off the bat. The lyrics can come off as being jokey in print, or even on records, but give it time (and especially see them live) and it will all fall into place. Among the many cool things about Finn's lyrics is that the same phrases and characters pop up in different songs, turning them into snatches of something bigger to decode. The Hold Steady's Charlemagne and Gideon aren't as fleshed out as Lifter Puller's Jenny, Nightclub Dwight and the Eyepatch Guy, but give 'em time it's only the first album.
"Certain songs they get so scratched into our souls."
At first the songs that stick out on ... Almost Killed Me are the rockers,
glammed-out swagger of "The Swish" and the shit-hot sax on "Hostile, Mass." Then
there's the slower ones "Sketchy Metal" and its crazy Jesus verse, and
the ballad "Certain Songs," kind of a "Piano Man" for the jaded, calling out
the jukebox classics "from the Meat Loaf to the Billy Joel." But the lines that
really give me the shivers are in the coda to "Most People Are DJ's," after
they've cut through the problems and hassles and fights and being sick of even
going to shows that don't turn out to be much, and wondering whether it's worth
thousand kids will fall in love in all the clubs tonight/ A thousand other kids
will end up gushing blood tonight/ Two thousand kids they won't get too much
sleep tonight/ Two thousand kids they still feel pretty sweet tonight."
The Hold Steady feel pretty sweet.