“Woke up in the ’20s. There were flappers and fruits in white suits. It was right before the crash. We got thrashed throughout the ’30s, queuing up for soup and scabby sores. Then they sent us off to war.”
That’s the sermon’s invocation, delivered by Craig Finn, the frontman of Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady. He speak-sings, channeling a reductionist, serrated-image synopsis of American history in a convinced, convincing growl, convulsions almost audible. He spits every word with what sounds like his last ounce of breath.
Finn’s voice is repulsive or inviting: Some critics blast it as an unappealing crutch for a man who cannot sing, though others see it as a man with too much to say to worry about melody. Finn understands the complaints, and he doesn’t defend as much as explain himself.
“I think the same thing might be said for Lou Reed or Bob Dylan, and I could understand having that hang-up. John Darnielle is another example. He’s not traditionally a great singer but John and, I think, myself have a non-inflected voice that’s amplified,” says Finn. “Both of us sing sort of like we talk.”
Finn is a fan of John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats. In May, a New Yorker editorial by Sasha Frere-Jones named Finn and Darnielle the two best American non-hip-hop lyricists. Frere-Jones noted that both delivered lyrics in hip-hop-modeled prose, full sentences rich with detail and allusion. She didn’t, however, note their love of the microcosm: Whereas Darnielle’s latest, The Sunset Tree, deals with his childhood at the hands of an abusive stepfather, Finn has used the first albums from The Hold Steady (and from his previous band, Minneapolis’ Lifter Puller) to construct a diorama of upper-Midwest punks, drug dealers, addicts and tramps. Darnielle writes about his childhood. Finn writes around it.
As Finn ramshackles through the decades on the opening verse of Almost Killed Me, the band’s 2004 debut,he is setting the table and stacking the deck. Then, he shows his hand: “The ’80s almost killed me. Let’s not recall them quite so fondly.”
Finn recalls the ’80s, all right, but he does so with the eye, pen and tongue of an immersed anthropologist. The Hold Steady isn’t another ’80s-idolatry band coming out of Williamsburg: no Depeche Mode winks or New Order beats here. Brainy and brawny, reverent and rebellious, The Hold Steady plays rock ‘n’ roll and reconstructs its paradigms by destroying them and then mixing the fractions. It’s loud, Tad Kubler’s unironic guitar solos flailing up in the space between Finn’s verses. It’s rockist purity in a time where textured think pieces win out more often than pentatonic, pyrotechnic glory. Not here: This is rock with the same power as that of the Drive-By Truckers, rural South traded for urban North.
As for Finn’s verses, they’re not your pop’s vision of rock. Over the course of Almost Killed Me and 2005’s brilliant sequel Separation Sunday, Finn starts the service with his invocation and ends it with a benediction, a one-woman choir crying “Walk on back!” to a Catholic schoolgirl named Hallelujah, who gets screwed up by religion and drugs and screwed by soccer players and a local hustler named Charlemagne. The 80 minutes between those disparate ends across two albums come packed with a dense stream of lyrics about the hard drugs, the good bar bands, the bad life breaks and what it means to be a kid struggling for meaning in a scene that has little or none itself. The events happen in an alter-Minneapolis, names and locations changed to protect the guilty. People get lost and work through their Catholic creeds and icons, hoping to find something. But it’s not autobiographical at all.
“They’re composites of people I know and met. If you’re a suburban America teenager like I was, 15 to 20 are big years, especially when you turn 16. And I had access to a car, and then this whole new world was wide open,” remembers Finn, who thinks that the whole of the Twin Cities–its music scene and the community’s support of that scene–shaped him like no other American city could have. “You go from not having much going on as a suburban kid to downtown where people are selling drugs on the street. There’s a lot of trust and naiveté that you have at that age, and that’s important.”
In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Finn as a bespectacled suburban Minneapolis teenager, pudgy, kind of nerdy, mostly affable, maybe precocious. That may not be entirely accurate, but he does admit to identifying with The Descendents’ unwanted chastity as a teenager. And it aligns well with the notion of Finn today: Married in Brooklyn, he’s so dedicated to his music that he moves the band’s van to across from his apartment each day, sits inside and fields journalists’ questions to promote the upcoming tour, their second in the South. He occasionally runs inside for a cup of coffee.
“I’m sure all of my neighbors think I’m crazy,” laughs Finn, who moved to New York after Lifter Puller broke up in 2000. Really, he just gets bad cell phone reception in his apartment. He’s not too crazy, maybe not crazy enough.
A slew of interviews for an upcoming Australian debut has taken its toll on his cell phone and, when it breaks today during an interview, he walks to a Verizon store, has it fixed and calls back immediately. He’s struck by the band’s newfound success: A spot in a Target ad campaign, high-profile festival slots and an album that has a real chance to land in the top five of the Village Voice‘s 2006 Pazz & Jop Poll.
But The Hold Steady will probably not alter rock ‘n’ roll music as much as they should. Months from now, their third record–which will, for the first time, employ some acoustic guitars and an outside producer–will be released on Frenchkiss Records, a small New York label with 15 bands. Most likely, they will never reach the status of their idols–Zeppelin, Sabbath, Springsteen–because major labels assume that the blue-collar rock consumer doesn’t have time to think about Feminax addictions or pimps named Charlemagne. They’re probably right. But in a microcosm where faith is the crux–where a girl named Hallelujah skips out of Catholic school to lose herself, only to find herself asking her pastor if she can “tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”–belief and hope are half of the victory. And having faith in this band is a celebration.
To wit, from “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”: “I’m not saying we could save you. But we could put you in a place where you could save yourself. If you don’t get born again, at least you’ll get high as hell.” Amen, Hallelujah. x
The Hold Steady plays Local 506 on Thursday, Feb. 2 with The Plastic Constellations and Swearing at Motorists at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-10. For our interview with guitarist Tad Kubler, see www.indyweekblogs.com/scan.