Vocalist Craig Finn and guitarist Tab Kubler started their careers with the indie-rock band Lifter Puller. They formed The Hold Steady after watching The Band‘s The Last Waltz. But unlike The Band, The Hold Steady aren’t rooted in traditional music forms; musically they resemble 1970s classic rock like Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy.
The Hold Steady were formed in New York, but vocalist and lyricist Craig Finn was raised in Minneapolis. 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 moustachioed 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 without Nicolay after his 2010 departure were less enthusiastically received, but he’s since returned.
The Hold Steady Album Reviews
Almost Killed Me | Separation Sunday | Boys and Girls In America | Stay Positive | Heaven Is Whenever | Teeth Dreams | Thrashing Thru the Passion | Open Door Policy
Favourite Album: Boys and Girls in America
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 become 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 it’s largely 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
Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady in 2010, leaving them as a four-piece. Nicolay was always a great foil for Kubler and Finn, adding melody to complement Finn’s shouting and Kubler’s riffing. Finn’s lyrics are less edgy than before – instead of chronicling confused young people, he’s addressing aging gracefully. Given these factors, The Hold Steady lose some of their identity on Heaven is Whenever.
When the material’s good, this isn’t a problem. Riff-based, rockier material like ‘Hurricane J’ and ‘The Weekenders’ still play to their strengths and is as enjoyable as their previous work. Nicolay is missed on the slower material like ‘We Can Get Together’, even though Finn’s lyrical references are fun; “There’s a girl on heaven hill/I come up to her cabin still.” The end of the record is comparatively weak – the lengthy closer ‘A Slight Discomfort’ drags.
Heaven is Whenever represents an uncertain transition for The Hold Steady, although it’s still worthwhile for fans.
On their sixth album, The Hold Steady are back to a five-piece band. Steve Selvidge, formerly of Lucero, is on board as a guitarist. The presence of Selvidge helps to fill out the band’s sound, and it’s a step forward after the uncertain Heaven is Whenever. There are still fewer hooks without the keyboards and Finn’s vocals are more buried in the mix than usual, but at least the guitar interplay and fuller sound are enjoyable.
With Finn’s vocals subsumed, I find it more difficult than usual to differentiate between these tracks. ‘The Ambassador’, with its lighter touch, is one of the most successful tracks. Contrasting with ‘The Ambassador’, the punky riffs and pace of ‘On With The Business’ is also strong. The closer ‘Oaks’ was inspired by Radiohead’s ‘Exit Music for a Film’, and it’s easily the longest track in the band’s studio catalogue, ending with an impressive guitar duel.
Teeth Dreams is a respectable effort without ever fully igniting.
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 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 was already familiar to fans, 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 producing 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.
Open Door Policy
Open Door Policy was largely recorded in 2019, around the time that The Hold Steady’s previous record Thrashing Thru The Passion was released. The group premiered new songs in London in early March 2020, but their tour was curtailed by coronavirus. It builds on their previous record, which was the first to feature a six-piece lineup with both keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Steve Selvidge. Impressively they’re expanding their sound on their eighth album. The band’s always immediately identifiable with its classic rock flavour and Craig Finn’s distinctive half-spoken vocals, but there are new elements here – in particular closer ‘Hanover Camera’ takes a smooth groove straight from 1970s Steely Dan.
The most memorable song, however, is ‘Unpleasant Breakfast’. It packs a lot of ideas into less than five minutes, like a mini rock-opera. There’s a great little Tom Petty reference (“Says she’s crazy about horses still”) and a touch of Jim Steinman in the piano riffs that bring the song to its conclusion. While Finn’s written about female characters before, ‘Me & Magdalena’ is unusual for writing in first person perspective about a female. ‘The Feelers’ is a strong opener, using Finn’s vocals to gently slide into the song – “She had the aura of an angel/But she had a couple problems/I guess the big one is she’s someone else’s wife” is one of Finn’s best lines.
It could maybe use some big, memorable choruses, but Open Door Policy is an outstanding eighth album – the band incorporating new ideas into their music while staying true to what made them effective.
10 Best Hold Steady Songs
Stuck Between Stations
Hot Soft Light
Your Little Hoodrat Friend
Sequestered in Memphis
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