The Hold Steady were formed in New York, but vocalist and lyricist Craig Finn was raised in Minneapolis, which a lot of his songs reference. Finn and guitarist Tab Kubler were part of a synth based band Lifter Puller, but The Hold Steady are derived from classic rock; Kubler and Finn decided to form the band after watching The Band‘s The Last Waltz. But unlike The Band, The Hold Steady aren’t based on traditional music forms, and musically they’re rooted in 1970s classic rock like Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy.
Finn’s lyrics are influenced by hip hop, and he builds dense narratives with a cast of characters based in Minneapolis, interweaving themes of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and religion.
The band were joined by mustachioed keyboard player Franz Nicolay, who guested on their 2004 debut Almost Killed Me, and who was a full-time member for their next three, and best, albums. Their records since his 2010 departure have been less enthusiastically received, although I’ve enjoyed 2014’s Teeth Dreams thus far. As of 2016, Nicolay has rejoined The Hold Steady for a tour, and my interest in the band’s current work would be renewed with him involved.
The Hold Steady Album Reviews
Almost Killed Me
On The Hold Steady’s debut, Tab Kubler plays classic rock inspired riffs, while Craig Finn spits out dense lyrics inspired by hip hop, interweaving stories about sex, drugs, and Catholicism. Almost Killed Me is a strong debut, but in light of what follows it feels like a rough draft – Finn’s narratives and the band’s arrangements would both became more complex. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay only guests on a few tracks here, but his keyboards would beef up their sound on future releases.
The strongest tracks include ‘Knuckles’, with its repetitive lyrical formula (eg. “I’ve been trying to get people to call me Freddie Mercury/But people keep calling me Drop Dead Fred”, and ‘Certain Songs’, which still feels like a prototype for later piano based Hold Steady tracks.
Almost Killed Me is a strong debut, but at the same time it’s like a rough sketch for The Hold Steady’s future releases.
Separation Sunday notches up everything from the excellent start of Almost Killed Me; The Hold Steady’s arrangements are more muscular and detailed, with Franz Nicolay as a full-time member on keyboards, while Craig Finn’s lyrics tell fragments of inter-weaved narratives. Thematically dense, Separation Sunday revolves around four characters: the narrator Craig, the pimp Charlemagne, the skinhead Gideon, and Holly/Hallelujah, who veers between faith, addiction, and prostitution.
While a lot of the appeal of Separation Sunday comes from Craig Finn’s intertwining stories, there’s plenty of musical punch here too. The most immediate track here is perhaps ‘Your Little Hoodrat Friend’, with its rhythmic guitar fills and powerful organ backdrops. As Finn is largely talk singing, Kubler is free to play almost anything, and the riff that fuels ‘Stevie Nix’ is both brutal and intricate. The record climaxes with the double punch of the short mournful ‘Crucifixion Cruise’ and the celebratory ‘How A Resurrection Really Feels’, which bounces along with an optimistic horn line.
Separation Sunday is fascinating; all the literary and classic rock allusions make it fodder for aging music critics, but it’s accessible all the same, although you might want to start with the more conventional next record.
Boys and Girls In America
Boys And Girls In America is more accessible than its predecessors, with Craig Finn employing vocal melodies on many of the tracks, while the band’s approach is less brutal and is reminiscent of the E-Street band in their prime. Some of Separation Sunday’s characters make return appearances (“Charlemagne pulls street corner scams/Gideon’s got a pipe made from a Pringles can/Holly’s insatiable/She still looks incredible”), while Finn’s still endlessly quotable (“We started recreational/It ended up all medical/It came on hot and soft and then/It tightened up its tentacles”).
Boys And Girls In America is one of the most instantly visceral rock records of its decade; ‘First Night’ is a pretty piano ballad for most of its duration, until it switches gears into a torrent of guitars and some of Finn’s most incisive lyrics. ‘Southtown Girls’ builds from a single a capella vocal into another tour de force, while ‘Citrus’ never raises its pulse above a simple acoustic lament (“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere). Meanwhile, the trio of rockers that open the record are all incredible, with Nicolay fluidly filling the gaps between Kubler’s propulsive riffs.
In some ways Separation Sunday is the more unique album, but when Boys And Girls In America hits full flight, it’s amazingly compelling.
Stay Positive is a worthy sequel to Boys and Girls in America. Lyrically it has Craig Finn’s usual themes, but it’s less dense than before, and it also feels like a love letter to rock music; they’re referencing The Clash and Hüsker Dü in the opening ‘Constructive Summer’, while Led Zeppelin are referenced on ‘Joke About Jamaica’.
Musically, The Hold Stead are exploring similar territory to Boys and Girls in America – again there’s a big piano ballad at track 5, this time with an epic guitar solo (‘Lord I’m Discouraged’), and again there’s a great song at the end with the propulsive ‘Slapped Actress’. The weaker tracks are the most sonically adventurous – ‘One For The Cutters’ rides Franz Nicolay’s harpsichord, while ‘Navy Sheets’ is built around a synth riff, but neither is particularly interesting beyond the lyrics. The bonus track ‘Two Handed Handshake’ is also noteworthy.
The Hold Steady have lost even more of their edge on Stay Positive, but the material here is mostly great. It’s a weak nine, but I love it too much to give it a lower rating.
Heaven is Whenever
2010 and 2014, not rated
I’ve never heard The Hold Steady’s fifth and sixth albums, although I’d like to check them out sometime, as well as Craig Finn’s solo career.
Thrashing Thru the Passion
Franz Nicolay rejoined The Hold Steady in 2016. Thrashing Thru the Passion is their first album since his return, and it’s been hailed as a return to form. It clocks in at a brief thirty six minutes, and it feels less conceptually ambitious than their early records, a collection of songs rather than a grand statement. The second half of the album will be already familiar to fans, already released as advance singles.
Despite the lack of thematic weight, Thrashing Thru the Passion is fast-moving and fun. Finn’s still playing with words, throwing in rapid-fire cultural references like this couplet from opener ‘Denver Haircut’; “On a spaceship shaped like a Gibson Marauder/The pilot kinda looked like Kirk Hammett”.
Elsewhere the band sound great, whether they’re crunching rock and roll like ‘Confusion in the Marketplace’ and ‘Star 18’, or drifting closer to Van Morrison territory than you might expect with Nicolay’s classy piano and horns of ‘Blackout Sam’.
It doesn’t feel as significant as their earlier masterpieces, but Thrashing Thru The Passion is a tight, fun record that captures more of The Hold Steady’s past glories than you might expect.
Ten Favourite Hold Steady Songs
Stuck Between Stations
Hot Soft Light
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Sequestered in Memphis
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