The Hold Steady
hen we last left Craig Finn, he was waxing ironic about all the “sniffling indie kids,” and wishing for a scene that didn’t sometimes oh-so-closely resemble hell. Not a lot has changed for Finn and his merry band of rocksters in The Hold Steady. When he spouts, “I’m pretty sure we heard this one before” on “Cattle and the Creeping Things,” you may just be inclined to agree.
He still name checks Ybor City and there’s still talk of parties. He’s still complaining about certain kinds of people, even if the object of his derision/occasional amusement has changed from hipsters to hoodrats. He’s still referencing one song with another repeatedly, whether it be from this album, or the band’s 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me. And of course, he still hates the ‘80s and many of the bands the decade inspired, as he rants in “Multitude of Casualties”: “At least in dying you don't have to deal with new wave for a second time.”
But fret not, gentle ax wielder, for there is still plenty of blistering, channel-switching, classic rock action that invokes the kind of aggressive air-guitar that makes the neighbors call the cops. “Banging Camp” lifts an AC/DC riff that carries the song as Finn does some riffing of his own: “When they say killer whales, they mean they whaled on him until they killed him up in Penetration Park.” Elsewhere, shades of Led Zeppelin show up on “Charlemagne in Sweatpants,” further illustrating that The Hold Steady is continuing the six-stringed scintillation that originated on the band’s first effort.
But Separation Sunday isn’t entirely of the ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it variety. The Brooklyn-based quintet has varied the instrumentation a bit, adding Franz Nicolay’s keyboards which add certain flair to this eleven-song set. Some of the songs will remind listeners of selections from Almost Killed Me, and not only because they name check them. But when you’re as clever as Finn and have the musicianship to match, the end result is consistently solid.
Still, it’s impossible to talk about The Hold Steady without mentioning the lyrics. Finn is a decidedly great lead non-singer, and because of this, he has to rely on brainy, culture-referencing wordage as opposed to impressive melodic style or range. Fortunately, his banter rarely disappoints, even if it is a little repetitive at times.
Breaking from the norm though, is “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” where Finn eschews his normal speaksing style and allows some vocal hooks to seep in. It seems like the band is giving in to a more traditional style until Finn sings, “She said ‘I ain't gonna do anything sexual with you. I'm kinda saving myself for the scene.’” It’s at this point that the song is redeemed as one that only The Hold Steady could (or would want to) pull off.
Separation Sunday finds Finn offering up several biblical references in addition to his usual pop culture quips, though there’s still plenty of the latter. Despite the stigma that sometimes comes with singing about Jesus, it should be pointed out that Finn and Co. haven’t turned to Christian rock. Rather, this album tells the story of a hoodrat girl named Hallelujah (the kids call her Holly) who disappears and eventually comes back by album’s end in “How a Resurrection Really Feels.”
As the song ends, closing out Holly’s tale to the sound of childlike bells, it becomes clear that, like other new group’s in recent years (see Interpol, The Strokes, etc.), The Hold Steady has followed an impressive debut with a solid follow-up. Where these Brooklynites will go now that they’ve conquered the sophomore slump is anyone’s guess, but as long as Craig Finn’s leading them, it’ll surely be interesting.
Reviewed by: Austin L. Ray
Reviewed on: 2005-05-06