The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me
he Hold Steady, a four-piece outfit from Brooklyn, is a revivalist rock group, but it is nothing like any other revivalist rock group in the country today. In fact, The Hold Steady hate those guys and their 80s Post-Punk postures: “I’ve survived the 80s one time already / And I don’t recall them all that fondly”. But The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, the group’s first full-length, is no petty battle between the poseurs and the real, the post-punkers and the classic rockers. It is a profound and terrifying look into America’s desiccated state, in which people murder repeatedly for purposes no more valiant than aesthetics, take drugs in desperate hopes to save themselves from the drugs they’ve already taken and die. Tragically.
“Positive Jam” opens the album chillingly by demonstrating that this persisted for nearly a century, from “when we got thrashed throughout the 30s…and they sent us off to war” to the 90s, when “we put it all down in technology and lost everything we invested”. At this point, the bleak guitars drop out entirely before a monstrous riff enters, and lead vocalist Craig Finn declares, “We gotta start it off with a positive jam!”
The song’s final moments and “The Swish”, into which it seamlessly flows, deliver on this promise, as The Hold Steady lash out some of the finest rock and roll in recent years. Even “The Swish”, however, features “powders and pills”, so it is evident that The Hold Steady don’t keep it positive for too long. Just about every song on Almost Killed Me describes—as the title suggests—near-death experiences, detailing characters and scenes ruined by drugs, people near the brink who don’t necessarily make it.
Unsurprisingly, then, Finn’s lyrics are Almost Killed Me’s most fascinating asset. The vocalist can twist lines and spit out clever rhymes like few contemporaries can; listen to him on “Barfruit Blues” as he bittersweetly declares, “She said it’s good to see you back in a bar band, baby / I said it’s great to see you’re still in the bars”.
Yet Finn is more than a wordsmith; in addition to playing with language, he can also describe the wretched and the pathetic in a manner that is nothing short of heart wrenching. On “Knuckles”, he tells the story of a murderer who admits, “the last guy…didn’t have to die / But the first four looked so nice / I wanted five”. On “Certain Songs”, Finn plays Billy Joel in his own “Piano Man”, painting a picture of the “good girls”, the “lovers”, the “bartenders and the kitchen workers and the bartender’s friends”, who all go to the jukebox for solace.
Musically, The Hold Steady still requires some development. Although a few songs show their skills consummated, most notably the aforementioned pair of “Positive Jam” and “The Swish” and the otherworldly closer, “Killer Parties”, most only suggest talent, and several lack memorable melodies. Furthermore, Finn, despite his often-brilliant delivery, still has much room for improvement as a vocalist; too often, he spits where he should sing.
The Hold Steady, then, is not yet an outstanding band, but unlike its New York contemporaries, shows the sort of distinctive talent that suggests that one day, it might be. Almost Killed Me is a noteworthy album, one that proclaims that revivalism need not be unoriginal. In a musical scene in which even disaffection is affected, this is quite remarkable.
Reviewed by: Kareem Estefan
Reviewed on: 2004-03-30