The A-to-Z Hold Steady Glossary
You don't just listen to the Hold Steady. You immerse yourself in the Hold Steady.
The Brooklyn-via-Minnesota quintet plays fist-pumping, glass-raising bar band rock, and does it damn well - classic rock as done by folks weaned on the Replacements. If it was just killer riffs and tight songs the Hold Steady wouldn't be so remarkable, though. It's vocalist/lyricist Craig Finn that makes them one of today's most fascinating current bands. His lyrics go beyond simple stories about young life on the fringes of society. He's created his own universe with recurring characters, settings, phrases and loads of musical and cultural references. Each song is its own little puzzle and they all interlock, resulting in a unique listening experience. A Hold Steady wiki is in progress; NPR took the time to annotate three songs. In honor of the group's sold-out show at the 9:30 Club tonight, here's an A-to-Z Hold Steady glossary, where you can get to know all about Clever Kids, Gideon, the Mississippi River and Ybor City.
Almost Killed Me
Start at the beginning - the Hold Steady's first album is its best. It doesn't have the story arc of "Separation Sunday" but in terms of bang for the buck, these 10 songs deliver with nothing resembling a clunker in the bunch.
Born to Run/Born to Lose
"Half the crowd is calling out for 'Born to Run' and the other half is calling out for 'Born to Lose,'" Finn shouts in "Barfruit Blues." The two songs - one of them is by this guy named Springsteen, the other by late New York Doll/boozehound Johnny Thunders - shows the two sides of the Hold Steady's musical equation. Classic rock + boozy bar band punk = the Hold Steady.
One of the many types of people inhabiting the Hold Steady universe, along with sniffling indie kids, hoodrats, skaters, bartenders and bartenders' friends. Clever kids are basically over-educated people who throw boring parties. ("These clever kids are killing me / For one they ain't that clever / Number two, it really sucks when you get stuck here with these Trevors / This was supposed to be a party.")
"Dusted in the Dark Up in Penetration Park"
A line from fan-favorite "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" showcases Finn's uncanny knack for alliteration. Check out the entire line: "I've been dusted in the dark up in Penetration Park, I've been plastered / I've been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church, I've been plowed." You can download the song here; listen to how he hits each one of those sounds. There just aren't any other lyricists around today with that same remarkable attention to detail.
Critics love the Hold Steady. Last year's "Boys and Girls in America" came in No. 4 in the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll; "Separation Sunday" was No. 10 the previous year. Both finished in the top 15 on Metacritic's year-end roundups.
The pill that's prescribed to help with period pain (and contains codeine, natch) is just one of many drugs abused by the characters in Hold Steady land. "Ginger and Jack and four or five feminax" is the mixture used in "The Swish."
Along with Charlemagne and Hallelujah (see below), one of the main characters in the Hold Steady universe, his name pops up on all three albums and a majority of the band's b-sides. Over the first two albums he's gone from Bay City, Mich., to South Minneapolis to Denver. His whereabouts on "Boys and Girls in America" aren't revealed, but we do know that he's "got a pipe made from a Pringles can."
The main character in the Hold Steady universe. "Separation Sunday" is a concept album, of sorts, about the ups and (mostly) downs of Hallelujah ("the kids all called her Holly"). Her story has plenty interesting moments, but Finn's description of her as "a real sweet girl who's made some not sweet friends" in "Crucifixion Cruise" is simple and to the point. She finds a seemingly happy, if slightly ambiguous ending in album closer "How a Resurrection Really Feels."
There's no mention of the interstate by Finn, but one of my strongest associations with the band is this highway. The Hold Steady is simply great driving music, particularly solo driving music. Every time I drive to and from Pittsburgh (Pirates in 2017!), "Almost Killed Me" and "Separation Sunday" get played, both ways. Sometimes I actually tire myself singing along; sometimes I get very confused looks from drivers who think I'm having an intense argument with myself.
Religion plays a big role, particularly on "Separation Sunday," as Hallelujah's happy ending comes as a result of being born again. As expected, Finn's take on the Bible is a bit off center: "I guess I heard about original sin / I heard the dude blamed the chick / I heard the chick blamed the snake."
The final track - the comedown, if you will - on "Almost Killed Me." It neatly summarizes the first album - something bad has happened to Charlemagne, a blur of cities are in the rearview and memories are hazy at best. "If she says we partied then I'm pretty sure we partied / I really don't remember / I remember we departed from our bodies."
As in the most recent album, 2006's "Boys and Girls in America." The production is flat, the lyrics creep toward self-parody and it generally sounds like the Hold Steady either on auto-pilot or trying too hard to make a Hold Steady album.
The Great River holds great importance, mentioned in four different songs, almost always used a symbol of rebirth. ("The lord takes away and the lord delivers / Washed it all off in the Mississippi River.")
The characters in the Hold Steady's songs find themselves in all sorts of off-the-beaten-patch locales, such as this Virginia town, as they slosh their way around the country. Others include: Shaker Heights, Ohio; Lynn, Mass.; Pensacola, Fla.; Osseo, Minn.; Brunswick, Maine; and, most notably, Ybor City, Fla. (see below)
Only the Good Die Young
Paradise by the Dashboard Light
Yes, plenty of songs get name-checked by Finn as well, the above pair in first album ode-to-the-jukebox, "Certain Songs." In addition to these two and the couple mentioned up at letter B you've got "Running Up That Hill," "Been Caught Stealing," "Dancing on the Ceiling," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and plenty more. Someone out there make a mixtape, OK?
A recent random sampling found that one out of every 443 MySpace users who were white males under the age 32 and who wore wire-frame glasses in their profile picture had a Hold Steady lyric as their headline.*
The names of random musicians and celebrities pop up constantly. Beverly Sills, Patty Smythe, Rick Danko, Elizabeth Shue, Steve Perry, Neal Schon, Nina Simone and Andre Cymone are all name-checked along with the Band's singer/guitarist ... and that's just in "The Swish." (Download here)
"Slipping Soft Rock Into the Setlist Now"
This first album lyric from the "Most People are DJs" turned out to be prophetic. "First Night" from "Boys and Girls in America" is a slow, sorrowful, piano-heavy tune that almost sounds like - gasp! - Counting Crows!
Springsteen is the most frequent comparison but these always-underrated Irish rockers are a more accurate reference point when describing the Hold Steady's sound. Thin Lizzy's songs were usually about characters on the fringe of society and their patented double lead guitar harmony is echoed a few times by the Hold Steady. And, of course, there's a lyrical reference to Thin Lizzy's singer ("They got some new guy that looks just like Phil Lynott.")
As in, Finn's voice. His enthusiastic (OK, spastic), nasal barking is sure to turn plenty of people off. If he was on "American Idol" he would relegated to one of those early-season "check out these deluded dopes" episodes. But like his fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan, he doesn't treat his voice as a handicap, he makes it his calling card.
As in, Finn's lyrics. Almost every song has at least one line that will elicit a chuckle. Rock music needs more humor in its lyrics. One of my favorites, from "Stevie Nix": "She said you remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young / You've got passion, you think that you're sexy / And all the punks think that you're dumb."
William Butler Yeats
Finn shows that he's got a bit of "clever kid" in him, as it's not just musicians and actors that get mentioned in his songs. "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" talks about Yeats, William Blake and Nelson Algren. "Boys and Girls in America" kicks off with the line "There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right," a reference to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." On "Hornets! Hornets!" a character (probably Hallelujah) claims "I won't be much for all this Humbert Humbert stuff," a reference to Nabokov's "Lolita."
OK, cheap one, I know. Xanax is the one painkiller Finn doesn't mention by name. I've been ever-so-slightly underwhelmed both times I've seen the Hold Steady play live; when I reviewed their show almost exactly a year ago I called it "one of the best disappointing shows in recent memory." I've realized it's because the precision with which Finn delivers his lyrics is a big factor in what makes him so much fun to listen to, and that's sometimes missing in the live show.
The tiny area in Tampa, Fla., is memorialized as a hard-partying town in three Hold Steady songs. "Ybor City is tres speedy but they throw such killer parties," Finn sings on "Killer Parties," the closing track to "Almost Killed Me."
Most people in Hold Steady world don't go to sleep; it's simply what happens once everything wears off. Waking up is an activity often filled with surprises, and was a common theme on the first album. "Woke up in the '20s" are the first words on "Almost Killed Me," and it closes with "we woke up in Ybor City."
* = So fabricated you didn't even need to come down here to confirm that fact.
By David Malitz |
November 20, 2007; 9:45 AM ET
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