The Hold Steady had three different focal points – guitarist Tad Kubler was a classic rock riff machine, emulating the bar band rock of Thin Lizzy. Vocalist Craig Finn was inspired by hip hop, weaving interlocking narratives of Catholic teenagers in sin and redemption in Minneapolis. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay added an extra layer to their sound, his piano and organ drawing comparisons to Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Between 2004 and 2006, the Hold Steady released three albums “Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday”, and “Boys and Girls in America”  that set a different standard for what indie rock could sound like. When their Brooklyn peers were mining postpunk and dance music, the Hold Steady channeled Springsteen, Thin Lizzy and ‘70s hard rock radio to back Finn’s bleeding heart missives about bad girlfriends and boring boyfriends, summer beers with your best friends, lovers who were bad news, kids getting high by the river and waking up in different cities. There was nothing like his voice, either; he sounded like someone nursing the world’s worst head cold while trying to talk through a mouthful of margarita mix. On top of kick-ass guitar riffs, he invented an entire universe in a ubiquitous speak-sing cadence with the persistence of a drunk stranger yelling a story at you.

The Hold Steady peaked with three great records in the 2000s; 2005’s Seperation Sunday featured their densest narratives, 2006’s Boys and Girls in America was their most accessible, while 2008’s Stay Positive was their most eclectic. Nicolay left the band before 2010’s Teeth Dreams, and without Nicolay, and as Finn moved from shouting to singing, they lost some of their identity and critics started comparing them disparagingly to Weezer and Counting Crows.

The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me

Originally together in Lifter Puller, vocalist Craig Finn and guitarist Tab Kubler were inspired to form The Hold Steady while watching The Band’s The Last Waltz. Kubler plays classic rock inspired riffs while 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 would become even more complex and the band’s sounds both became more complex.

Their 2004 debut album, Almost Killed Me, sounds like the E Street Band after they slipped into the gutter, Thin Lizzy if they got fat and American, and a hundred other bands from Southside Johnny to the early-’70s Kinks that liked to party, but did it with the occasional tear-filled eyes and desperate hearts. Like the best of these classic rock staples, the Hold Steady can flat out rock. Kubler can rip off a fret-searing solo with bullfighter style, which he does quite frequently, and the rhythm section has enough muscle power to stop a speeding locomotive. On top of this vintage rock chassis, the band drop Finn’s vocals and vision. Without him, the music is straightforward enough to appeal to the AOR masses and backstreet fanatics; with him they are far too weird and wild. His pop culture name-drops, knowing references to obscure musicians like Andre Cymone, real-sounding tales of the streets, and flights of knuckle-busting anger are far out in left field, and his bracing, eye-bulging delivery of said lyrics pushes it even further over the top. It’s a high-wire balancing act of sorts, and it would be easy for the band to topple over into boring mainstream rock cliches or veer into embarrassing drunken poetry territory but it never happens, not even once. The group plays with intense energy at all times, propping Finn up and giving his words the dramatic backdrop they deserve. Finn holds up his end of the bargain by being hilarious and oddly touching as he rambles, coughs, and shouts his way through what sounds like a lifetime of journal entries, inside jokes, and record store soliloquies.

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.

The Hold Steady Separation Sunday

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.  Separation Sunday though. It is a much darker record, revolving around drug casualties, broken lives, a hoodrat fixation, spiritual and physical dissipation, and general despair, and there aren’t as many easy laughs this time out — but instead the listener gets lots of head-shaking wonderment at Craig Finn’s genius lyrics and voice. His gruff, in-your-ear vocals negotiate the twisting torrent of words like a world-class skater kid. He is insanely literate and insanely insistent: he is strangely brilliant. He is also just about the best rock & roll frontman Whipping up a classic rock-inspired frenzy of monitor-straddling guitar riffs, dual harmony leads, E Street piano flourishes, and galloping horns, the band behind Finn sounds like nothing less than Jim Steinman’s dream group. You could talk about great individual songs (the epic “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” the piledriving album opener “Hornets! Hornets!,” the weird and almost funky “Charlemagne in Sweatpants”), but the strength of the album is in the flow from song to song and the way the intensity level (which starts off at a near fever pitch) elevates until your head is just about ready to burst from the thrill of it all. Call it a quaint idea in 2005, but Separation Sunday is truly an album, one that sounds almost perfect when played from beginning to end in the proper running order. Block out about 42 minutes sometime, hold steady, and get ready for indie rock — no, rock & roll — at its sweatiest, most intense, and most impressive.

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.

The Hold Steady 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”).

One of the ballads here, “First Night,” begins with a piano and an acoustic guitar lilting a rather loose melody that gives Craig Finn the support he needs to get out of his pent-up, novelistic, wordsmithing mouth. All of these characters are young, desperate, and fleeing from their inner fear, except for Holly who is wise enough to tell the protagonist that “words alone never could save us”….and then “cried when she told us about Jesus.” The piano fills out that unfillable hole in Holly and the rest, no matter where they run. Finn can do nothing but repeat his lines and find a last verse somewhere to let the song just fade into silence, because it never really ends. Boys and Girls in America is a sophisticated shambles. There’s still a barely-on-the-rail feel, despite the literate compositions. Finn’s always either behind or ahead of the beat, but it’s alright, his bandmates can more than handle that because they’re as engaged as he is. There are a few guests, and even a horn section on one track, and the classic girl group chorus call and response . There’s real sadness in the Wall of Sound and chanted chorus in “You Can Make Him Like You,” which examines everything from addiction to betrayal, to the insecurity in love that can push someone over the edge, never to return. Thin Lizzy makes a return on “Massive Nights,” complete with roiling bass as Finn opens the whole escapist mix, swinging and setting up a hedonist’s dream: “The guys were feeling good about their liquor run…” There are low expectations and drama where only the music counts. The tune turns back on itself when the singer is trying to convince himself and the huge, wailing, responsorial chorus, that something so utterly suburban could be cool, until “She had the gun in her mouth/She was shooting up at her dreams/When the chaperone said that/We’d been crowned/the king and the queen.” And it just ends. The reason this record is worth embracing, and even celebrating, is because it’s an honest to God rock & roll album. It exposes in the first and third person what it means to grow up right now in the midst of suburban waste. It’s angsty, but Finn’s got a sense of humor, and the band can play their asses off. That they so readily embrace rock history as a means of unfolding Finn’s stories suggests that “cool” and “indie” are simply terms in the larger dialogue. This is a smoking little record.

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 interesting, unique album, but when Boys And Girls In America hits full flight, it’s amazingly compelling.

The Hold Steady Stay Positive

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 Steady 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.

After that virtuosic run of albums, the Hold Steady released the very good Stay Positive in 2008, capitalizing on their newfound status as the most righteous band in indie rock. (I mean, look at that title.) What happened next was, by the band’s account, a little trying. A European tour was canceled on the eve of setting out because of Kubler’s bout with pancreatitis. After putting out four albums in five years, the band found themselves pushing harder to complete out the next. “It was rushed,” Kubler says of the 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever. “Not everybody was on the same page, and I don’t think there was a lot of communication. Longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay, whose contributions were crucial to the sweeping melodrama of Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America, left during the making of Heaven is Whenever,

Four years passed between that record and Teeth Dreams—longer than it took for the first three albums to come out. In between, Finn recorded a solo album and the band added a new guitarist, Steve Selvidge, which allowed Finn to drop the pretense of being a guitar player. (During the show, he will play without one—usually, one would just dangle untouched around his neck like a dead limb.) Selvidge joined during the Heaven is Whenevertour, and helped write the music for Teeth Dreams. You can hear his influence in the guitar interplay, which is the most nuanced of the band’s career.

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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.

Craig Finn had this to say, It’s our 7th LP, Thrashing Thru The Passion, is out . It’s our first album with the six piece lineup of The Hold Steady, and our first in five years! We are very proud of it. Lots of people deserve thanks for major contributions to the project.

Producer Josh Kaufman helped us a ton and made the sessions super fun. Annie Nero gave us some amazing vocals. Horns were expertly provided by Stuart Bogie, Jordan McLean, Dave Nelson and Michael Leonhart.

One of our oldest friends Dave Gardner mastered the record. Nick Hollomon created the fantastic art for this and all the preceding singles. Frenchkiss Records was kind enough to put it out into the world. We raise a glass to all of these folks. We will continue celebrating this release two more nights in Seattle, and then on to Chicago, Nashville, and Boston. Thanks for listening, Thanks for understanding. Stay Positive!

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’. 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.

thanks Aphoristic Album 

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