in Retrospecticus

Retrospecticus: The Hold Steady

Seems kind of wierd to do two retrospecticuses in a row, but it’s been a while since we’ve had a music retrospective posted on this blog, like over a year. So let’s take a look back at the albums that have thus far been released by The Hold Steady, a band who really haven’t been around for that long, but have already built up a pretty impressive discography.

Almost Killed Me (2004)
After the disbanding of Minneapolis-based band Lifter Puller, lead singer Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler moved to Brooklyn, NY. They decided to start a band, a band without any expectations of playing shows, or making records, or really being able to make any sort of living out of this band as both of them were already in their 30’s and working full-time jobs. This was the genesis for The Hold Steady’s first album, Almost Killed Me.
The album is about as raw and visceral of a take on classic rock as you could ask for as Kubler’s blistering guitar riffs are at the musical forefront of the album. This is all counterbalanced by Craig Finn’s hyper-literate lyrics featuring accounts of “killer parties”, dangerous drugs, and obscure rock n’ roll references, all delivered in a vocal style that’s probably closer to talking than singing. You can definitely see that the band wasn’t exactly thinking of the pop charts when they wrote these songs as they rely more on the clever one-liners and puns of Craig’s lyrics and the band’s raw energy rather than catchy melodies. But it’s this raw rock n’ roll aesthetic along with their booze-fueled lyrics that earned The Hold Steady the label of “world’s greatest bar band”.
Favorite Tracks: “The Swish”, “Most People Are DJs”, “Hostile, Mass.”

Separation Sunday (2005)

This was probably The Hold Steady album that took me the longest to really get into. I’m not really sure why, because it could very well be their finest hour. From the moment the album starts with the lone sound of Craig Finn’s voice you can tell that this is gonna be a “lyrics album”. Finn expands on the lyrical approach he established on The Hold Steady’s debut by turning out what is basically a loose concept album filled with a slew of recurring characters and Catholic overtones.
However, it’s not just the lyrics that help broaden the scope of The Hold Steady’s sound on Separation Sunday. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay joined the band prior to this album, and his work definitely adds some depth to The Hold Steady’s still very guitar-driven sound. I’m really quite amazed with the way this band can take everything you thought was dead about rock music and sound completely alive and exhilarating. I mean look at the song “Banging Camp”, it starts with a guitar riff that sounds like a riff you’ve heard a million times before, and by the end of the song they’re able to make that same riff sound like the most triumphant thing you’ve ever heard.
Favorite Tracks: “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”, “Banging Camp”, “How A Resurrection Really Feels”

Boys And Girls In America (2006)

And just a year after releasing Separation Sunday, The Hold Steady somehow managed to match that album’s greatness with Boys And Girls In America. The album starts with “Stuck Between Stations”, which is probably one of my favorite songs ever, and pretty much defines what this band is all about while displaying the more Springsteen-like approach seen on Boys And Girls In America.
You can definitely see why this was the album that started to bring more attention to this band, considering it’s probably the most accessible of their albums. At the forefront are lots big choruses and “whoah-oh” back-up vocals, while Craig Finn’s vocals are closer to singing than his signature brand of sing-speak. The Hold Steady certainly went for a more polished sound on this album, but they never sound like they’re selling out. With songs like “Chips Ahoy!” and “Massive Nights”, The Hold Steady manage to rock your socks off while they also pull off some great ballads like “First Night” and “Citrus”, and the rest of the songs find that sweet spot in between. If you didn’t check this album out after seeing it on my Top 10 of the decade, well maybe it’s time you rethink that foolish decision.
Favorite Tracks: “Stuck Between Stations”, “Chips Ahoy!”, “Party Pit”

Stay Positive (2008)

This was the album that made me a Hold Steady fan. However, as I explored the rest of their discography it slowly has become my least favorite of their albums, but it’s still chocked full of great material nonetheless. Songs like “Navy Sheets” and the album’s title track rock about as hard as anything this band has done so far, but what I really like about the album is the more reflective songs like “Lord, I’m Discouraged” and “Magazines”.
Craig Finn has said that his lyrics are not very personal, but I can’t help but feel like on Stay Positive he starts to tangle with his own ideas about getting older while still trying to create joyous rock n’ roll. Really the only thing that kind of bugs me about this album is its somewhat muddy-sounding production, but besides that there’s plenty of the great energetic anthems that The Hold Steady have are so good at banging out.
Favorite Tracks: “Sequestered In Memphis”, “Magazines”, “Slapped Actress”

Heaven Is Whenever
I’ve had the chance to listen to a few songs off The Hold Steady’s forthcoming album, with “The Weekenders” being my favorite track so far. From what I’ve heard, Heaven Is Whenever looks to be another example of The Hold Steady expanding on their sound while still keeping that same raunchy bar band feel. It’s been a while since I’ve actually gone to a record store and bought a CD on it’s release date, but I think I might do that for this newest release from The Hold Steady. In my eyes they’ve earned it.

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