Stars, Bars, and Guitars

The Hold Steady report from the front lines of nightlife gone awry.

His name is Craig Finn, but people like to call him Craig Mack; he brings the flava in your ear and the shivers down your back. For the better part of the '90s, Finn was the lead singer of Lifter Puller, a band that stormed Minnesota at about the time people stopped caring about Soul Asylum. By the time they'd disbanded in 2000, they'd birthed a strange mutation of post-punk Minneapolis mythos, as if Tom Waits' 1978 Christmas-card hooker had given birth to an army of dead-eyed, live-hipped First Avenue regulars getting blitzed with fake IDs. It didn't hurt that the band hinged their Superchunk-with-a-swagger sound on Finn's inimitable lyrical style—half warble, half narration, he spilled out pop-cultural torrents of hazardous, hedonistic nightlife war stories sprinkled with liberal amounts of assonance and rapidly mutating rhyme schemes.

Finn's voice itself was a caveat, to be honest—a less charitable critic could concoct analogies of his timbre as Frank Oz doing Bruce Springsteen doing Adam Yauch doing a beatnik from the Simpsons. Finn would've probably written "radiant cool/crazy nightmares/Zen New Jersey nowheres" if John Swartzwelder hadn't done it first. Then again, Finn probably would've written "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" if Outkast hadn't done that first; the tales of club drama that Lifter Puller spun were a rare demonstration of indie rock subtly crossing paths with city-bound party culture, lurid glimpses for burb kids who wore out their tapes of The Chronic during bus rides to all-ages punk shows. They wrote stories about people who party to escape, only to find out that partying gave them a new set of things they had to escape from: vindictive drug dealers, humiliating one-night stands, the frequent panic of waking up in unfamiliar environments. Small wonder the titles of their two most pivotal albums—1997's Half-Dead and Dynamite and 2000's Fiestas + Fiascos—highlighted the duality of party and bullshit, ecstasy and agony.

After Lifter Puller broke up, Finn moved to Brooklyn, where a thrown-together cover band he assembled as bumper-music providers for a friend's comedy act—replete with Lifter Puller vet Tad Kubler on lead guitar, alongside drummer Judd Counsell and bassist Galen Polivka, both alumni of former Minneapolitan crunch merchants Punchdrunk—gradually coalesced into a new entity, an earthier permutation of the pulp noir aesthetic Lifter Puller had mastered in the previous decade. Like their predecessor, the Hold Steady have a nebulous connection to the indie-rock umbrella; their lack of allegiance to any specific "-core" suffix subgenre does more to broaden their appeal than to alienate potential purists. And while it's a little disorienting to hear all those familiar catchphrases and narrative signifiers cranked out in what is a decidedly more "classic rock" vein—garish guitar-solo codas, Clarence Clemons sax riffs, a Tyranny and Mutation rhythm section—it still adheres naturally to the intensity of Finn's storytelling (did I mention that Craig could've written "The Boys Are Back in Town" if Thin Lizzy, etc.?).

The Hold Steady's power-chord revival plays almost like a Drive-By Truckers for Yankees (or dodgers), portraying the music of hipster kids' parents not as a '70s retro fetish item but as a constant in pop culture's stuttering evolution. The overarching sound of The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss), their debut album, is summed up neatly in "Barfruit Blues": "Half the crowd is calling out for 'Born to Run'/And the other half is calling out for 'Born to Lose'/Baby, we were born to choose."

But more substantial things have changed since the last time Finn had a rock band—or maybe they've just gotten uglier, the kind of ugly that happens when a hipster culture gives up the egalitarian ghost and extrapolates its insular bitterness. The real shift between Fiestas + Fiascos and Almost Killed Me is the lyrics' attitude—specifically, and pivotally, how Finn's revelers are portrayed. Lifter Puller's lyrics always had a reasonably objective bent in their tales of debauched peril, but there's more venom on this album, informed by jaded posttraumatic reactions to nights wracked with desperate fixes (fictional or otherwise), careening through the flashy oversaturation of Williamsburg-chic Brooklyn.

It's not just Finn as bewildered, half-giddy bystander. It's Finn as shell-shocked former participant, trapped amongst uncouth "clever kids" and bloodshot backstabbers all pilling and peaking and pushing and shoving and shit. "Knuckles" has a palpable nervous tic to it—the further the lyrics get into dispatches on Midwestern crystal meth wars and youth stabbings, the funnier and darker his signature "nickname" lines get: "I've been trying to get people to call me Freddie Mercury/People keep calling me Drop Dead Fred/It's hard to take it easy when half your friends are way too easy/It's hard to get ahead when half your friends are dead." "Sketchy Metal" reads like a detox confessional, peppering semireverent references to the Holy Trinity with punch lines that laugh in the face of death. And the final track, "Killer Parties," betrays the sadness in the typical brag of the excessively wasted: "Ybor City is très speedy, but they throw such killer parties/Killer parties almost killed me."

In interviews, Finn has frequently posited the Hold Steady's "bar band" rock as a kind of true-school antidote to the N.Y.C. post-punk/electroclash scene, and it's understandable that cynical kids who get Ludovico reactions from trucker hats are starting to feel empowered by them. But Almost Killed Me isn't merely the work of some grousy old guys who liked it better when rock wasn't retro-electro-disco. At its most gut level, the album feels like the work of a group of wearied Reagan-Bush casualties recoiling from Vice magazine–style designer drugs and condescension chic and casual assholism. They're New Yorkers now, but they could be anywhere, Seattle included.

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